I had no idea what to expect when I got off the plane in Wisconsin for the third national Baptist-Muslim Dialogue.
I was honored to have been asked to represent a delegation of Baptists for this historic meeting held on April 16-19.
After the meeting, I remain absolutely humbled by being in the presence of Baptist and Muslim leaders doing truly remarkable work that makes a global impact.
This experience has led me to reflect on how my own call in ministry has intersected along the lines of religious liberty and interfaith dialogue.
In high school, I competed on the debate team alongside Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and atheist students.
In college, I worked with a mission group in Frankfurt, Germany, that helped Muslim immigrants and refugees fleeing their war-torn countries of origin.
In my seminary years, I benefited from a Mission Immersion experience in Kenya, and the first time I ever heard a Muslim call to prayer was in Garissa, a Muslim-majority city in eastern Kenya.
At our hotel, a Koran and a prayer rug took the place of the Gideon Bible found in most U.S. hotel rooms.
My first pastorate was in a town called Urbanna, Virginia. In the 1700s, a Baptist minister named John Waller was jailed for preaching without a license from the Episcopal colony of Virginia.
In my current ministry context (the next county over), Waller was tried in the county courthouse, in the very room that would later become my church’s sanctuary.
For more than 100 years, our pulpit literally stood over the exact spot where the judge’s bench once sat.
The arc of human freedom, the quest for religious liberty and our personal stories often fill with sweet irony and justice.
At the Baptist-Muslim Dialogue, I met wonderful Muslim leaders from across the country who are working (and longing) tirelessly for religious liberty, often facing the same kinds of harassment and prejudice as early colonial Baptists.
There is one important caveat to this though: colonial Baptists did not have racism and xenophobia layered on top of their persecution.
If anybody should stand up for the religious liberty of Muslims, it should be Baptists. In many ways, we Baptists invented modern religious liberty. Because of my Baptist heritage, I have no problem saying, “I’m with Muslims.”
For too many Baptists, religious liberty is a shallow and hollow representation of the religious liberty for which our forbearers contended.
Unfortunately, for many U.S. Christians, religious liberty means liberty for Christians (or certain kinds of Christians) to silence dissent and force their closely held convictions upon others.
True religious liberty is not for Christians only, and holding up liberty for one group erodes true liberty for all.
“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever,” colonial-era Baptist John Leland (1754-1841) once wrote. “Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks (Muslims), Pagans and Christians.”
Leland stood with Muslims in the colonial era, who were most often slaves brought to the colonies against their own free will and forced to convert to the faith of their white masters.
Even in colonial days, there was a deep element of racism in attempting to convert Muslim slaves. Conversion became a part of subjugating people and separating families.
Leland, in speaking out for religious liberty for Muslims, was likely not only speaking on behalf of a minority religious community, but also defending the soul freedom of slaves.
If religious belief or Christian theology is propped up by the state, the church of Jesus Christ is relying on the power of an earthly kingdom to propel the heavenly Kingdom.
If the state compels religious belief by favoring one religion over others, or even favoring belief over nonbelief, people are not truly free to believe or not believe based on their own conscience and according to the Spirit’s work in their hearts; they are bribed and coerced.
I heard a deeply troubling story about the bribing of the human conscience at the Baptist-Muslim Dialogue.
One Muslim relief worker sincerely shared that representatives from a well-known Christian relief agency recently told hundreds of Syrian refugees that if they wanted to receive the food and thermal blankets on the relief trucks, they must first convert and be baptized.
Holding out conversion and baptism as a carrot to those fleeing genocide, rape, torture and starvation is antithetical to what Jesus meant when he encouraged us in Matthew 25 to love the “least of these.” It’s absolutely shameful.
Think about it. People fleeing one group (ISIL) demanding conversion (to their narrow minded and hate-filled version of Islam) or death, flee across deserts and oceans risking life and limb only to meet another group demanding conversion or death.
What a charade of Christian love, and what a travesty. I’m with Muslims (and faithful Christians) who will gladly and freely give aid to anybody, no matter their religion, race or creed.
Another new Muslim friend has found his life’s work in the United Nations, attempting to get every Muslim majority country on earth to sign onto the Marrakesh Declaration, which upholds the religious liberty of minority faith groups in Muslim-majority countries.
As countries begin writing the language of the declaration into their national constitutions, and codifying religious liberty into law, human communities will flourish, and, in many cases, lives will be spared.
Yet, ironically, many Christians in Western countries would codify laws that limit the religious liberty of minority faiths, particularly Islam.
Imagine giving your life to working for true religious liberty in Muslim-majority countries, only to be denied true religious liberty in Christian-majority countries.
Many Muslims in the United States face discrimination, including finding pig heads on the doorsteps of their mosques, bullet holes in their road signs and marques and endless legal battles with local zoning boards that effectively try to bar Muslim houses of worship in local communities where Christian churches no doubt flourish.
When religious liberty of one group is jeopardized or hampered, or when religious minorities face constant discrimination and harassment, religious liberty for all is in a precarious state.
And so, I’m with Muslims (and faithful Baptists) who work tirelessly for robust religious liberty at home and abroad.
Christian witness and the gospel of Christ are not threatened or diminished by finding common humanity with Muslims.
Rather, when we serve as Jesus served, when we love as Jesus loved, when we view all people as made in God’s image and when we stand up for true liberty and freedom for the human soul and conscience, the witness of church becomes a beautiful expression of the two great commandments.
To love God and to love neighbor are at the heart of true religion that is pleasing to God.
Even if you are in a rural community like I am, I can almost guarantee you have Muslim neighbors. How is God calling us to love one another?
Loving our neighbors doesn’t mean sacrificing our beliefs. It requires living them out.
Jonathan Davis serves as the pastor of Beale Memorial Baptist in Tappahannock, Virginia. He is on the Coordinating Council for CBF Virginia and was part of the CBF delegation at the dialogue. He also serves on the Virginia Baptist Mission Council and is a doctor of ministry candidate at Logsdon Seminary, where his research focuses on equipping small-town churches for 21st-century ministry. His writings also appear on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter @jonathandavis_.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series reflecting on the third Baptist-Muslim Dialogue held April 16-19 in Green Lake, Wisconsin. Photos from the event are available here. A series of video interviews from the dialogue will be published here.
Previous articles in the series are:
What Happens When Baptists, Muslims Work Together by Richard P. Olson
6 Factors That Brought Baptist, Muslim Leaders Together by Rob Sellers
Baptist-Muslim Dialogue Opened My Eyes to Interfaith Engagement by Trisha Miller Manarin
Bearing Witness to Confront Negative Stereotypes about Islam by Drew Herring
Jonathan Davis pastors Beale Memorial Baptist Church in Tappahannock, Virginia. He holds a D.Min. from Logdson Seminary, where his studies focused on helping rural churches thrive in the midst of 21st Century change. Jonathan is the founder of the Small-Town Churches Network where he shares research and ideas to help rural churches and clergy thrive. He also serves on the Coordinating Counsel for CBF Virginia, and on the Mission Counsel for the Baptist General Association of Virginia.