IMPORTANT UPDATE: Rick Warren responded yesterday to the Orange County Register story with a helpful clarification.

“Who is my neighbor?”, the rich young ruler asked Jesus. The query was an attempt to deflect responsibility. Of course, I have a responsibility for my family, kinsmen, and fellow Jews, but surely not for the outcasts, the morally unclean, or the Gentile. No loophole, Jesus replied. Your neighbor is the one right under your nose, whomever God created in his image. Like the rich young ruler, we all have ways of defining “neighbor” as someone who is like us. It’s group narcissism: not really loving my neighbor, but loving myself and what I see of myself in others.

Who Is My Neighbor?

We recognize our responsibilities to our own families, church, and perhaps various voluntary associations. There are school ties: fraternity/sorority mates, secret societies, and alumni associations, where belonging gives advantages in climbing the corporate ladder or getting your kids into Harvard. In a less mobile era, churches reflected the demographics of their neighborhood, as it was often divided between the farm and the town, or along racial and socio-economic lines (different sides of the tracks). Even in many cases where blacks and whites worshipped together, the former sat in the loft—never in the main gallery—and certainly did not drink from a common cup in Communion. (Paul says something about this in 1 Corinthians.) In our mobile society today, churches are more divided than ever into ever-smaller niche demographics defined by the marketplace.

In all of these cases, we choose our neighbors. They are people who are like us. We share similar playlists on our iPod, shop at the same stores, drive similar cars, and even dress alike. When we move to a new city or suburb, we find a neighborhood, church, and school that most closely fits our own self-chosen identity. (Of course, some people have more freedom to choose than others.)

However, our closest neighbors are not those we choose; they are the ones who are chosen for us, by God, either in his common grace (providence) or special grace (salvation). The most obvious example is our nuclear and extended family. The church is another place designed by God rather than the market. At least in principle. Ideally, based on biblical principles, a local church should reflect the unity of faith and diversity of culture that belongs to its particular time and place. When the defining location is “in Christ”—”one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” then all sorts of people show up who are different from you. They are not only your neighbors, but your brothers and sisters. You didn’t choose them; God did. Who is my brother or sister? Those whom God has given to his Son and therefore to me as someone to love in a concrete yet mysterious depth of mutual affection.

But who is my neighbor? As far as our neighborhoods are concerned, increasingly, socio-economic demographics are more definitive than other factors, such as race or religion, which cut across income-levels.

Our family lives in a typical middle-class track home. Two doors down from us is a family of Muslim immigrants. How do I embrace them as a gift from God—as neighbors rather than aliens? It is interesting to see how our children more naturally interact with this family than my wife and I. The children play together regularly, either at our house or theirs. Sometimes there is tension, especially when they get into a theological conversation! Sometimes the kids get into lively discussions and our children have developed a genuine love for their friends, praying that they will come to know Christ and offering witness where they are able. For the most part, they simply accept each other as neighbors.

My wife and I do our best to remember not to offer treats during Ramadan. I’ve tried to help get one of the kids a job, my wife gave them a stroller, and we sign up for their school contests. But surely we are not loving our neighbors if we have not shared the gospel with them ourselves. I have done so with the oldest son from time to time, but I confess that it’s difficult. Faith is so bound up with culture—not only in Islam, but in their perception (too often the reality) of Christianity in America. Where do you begin? Yet we’re neighbors. In Jesus’ book, that word means a lot more than it ordinarily would in my own. Especially when it comes to the parents, heir difference from me intrigues me, but it also allows me to justify a certain distance, even unavailability. I walk into their home, surrounded by framed texts in illuminated Arabic script and swords, and they too sense the dance of the porcupines. Yet I want to be their neighbor and I suspect that they might want to be mine. I want to see them from God’s perspective, as a gift the he has chosen for me, rather than as a resource that I choose or don’t choose for myself.

Building Bridges

A recent article in the Orange County Register reports that Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren has stepped out into the choppy water by building bridges to the Islamic community. He has spoken in a number of mosques and to large groups of Muslim clerics. It’s part of a new initiative, called the King’s Way, which is, according to the report, “proposing a set of theological principles that include acknowledging that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.” Here are a few highlights from the article:

    • On one occasion, Saddleback Church hosted an “interfaith” soccer game with pastors and imams taking on the teens. “At the dinner, Abraham Meulenberg, a Saddleback pastor in charge of interfaith outreach, and Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs at a mosque in Los Angeles, introduced King’s Way as ‘a path to end the 1,400 years of misunderstanding between Muslims and Christians.’” Then a document was presented, affirming common belief in “one God” and “two central commandments: ‘love of God’ and ‘love of neighbor.’” It expressed the goal of making friends, building peace, and working together on social service projects. “We agreed we wouldn’t try to evangelize each other,” said Turk. “We’d witness to each other but it would be out of ‘Love Thy Neighbor,’ not focused on conversion.”
    • One of Warren’s neighbors, Yasser Barakat—a Muslim from Syria, befriended the Orange County pastor and they have been fast friends ever since. In fact, “‘He calls me his Muslim brother,’ Barakat said. ‘It all started with a friendship.’”
    • According to this article, Gwynne Guibord, an Episcopal priest said that when she and Muslim leader Jihad Turk co-founded the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group in 2006, they left evangelicals out of the invitations—fearing that the desire to convert Muslims would threaten the project. Now, however, both are convinced that the worries are unjustified. In these gatherings, people weep as they realize how many misconceptions they had of each other.

Reaching Out Without Watering Down

Rick Warren’s initiative on this, as on other fronts, is admirable for its motivation. I don’t question the sincerity of his neighbor-love or of his concern to create greater friendship, understanding, and social cooperation. As a recent Newsweek cover-story documents, this is extremely rare in Islamic countries, where persecution of Christians is alarming. So wherever bridges of friendship and understanding can be built, so much the better.

However, I have some concerns on two fronts. The more important concern touches the ultimate mission and identity of believers and the church. Do we in fact worship the same God? It is true that there is widespread misunderstanding among Muslims concerning the Christian view of God—that the Trinity implies three separate gods and that the incarnation was the result of God the Father’s sexual relations with Mary, for example. Nevertheless, even when these misconceptions are resolved, the fact remains that Christians worship the Triune God revealed in Scripture and Muslims believe that this is blasphemy. We are not simple monotheists, but Trinitarians: God’s identity as three persons is just as basic to our faith as the one essence that they share. With respect to the latter, we disagree sharply over who this God is: his attributes, character, purposes, and relation to the world.

Out of respect for our neighbors, we have to allow them to register their own “No!” to our creed and out of faith we have to confess and witness to the revelation of God’s Word. Rick Warren categorically denies that he is trying to merge Christianity and Islam. “My life and ministry are built on the truth that Jesus is the only way, and our inerrant Bible is our only true authority,” he said on his site (Pastors.com). Given that, though, doesn’t love require that we extend neighborly friendship and seek to bring them the gospel? Is this not the way it should be with all of our neighbors? Surely not every social event has to be an evangelistic opportunity, but then it also should not be a religious one either—as if churches and mosques could find some common ground of faith for their charity towards each other. The bridge-building between neighbors should happen in neighborhoods, not in “interfaith” quasi-religious gatherings.

The “King’s Way” statement acknowledges common belief in the law of love. However, even this is interpreted in radically different ways in the authoritative texts of both religions. The “love” of Allah is radically different in definition than love as it is manifested by God and commanded in Scripture. More importantly, there is no gospel in Islam. It is a religion of works-righteousness from start to finish, with no rescue operation of God incarnate for sinners. The God we worship is known in Jesus Christ and any god who could be known apart from this Savior, dying and rising for us, is an idol. To separate belief in God from the gospel is to vitiate biblical faith at its core. The Allah of the Qur’an and Hadith is the archetype of terror and I have witnessed the overwhelming relief of those who have been freed from the fearful resignation to Allah by embracing the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

I do not for that reason wish to deprive my Muslim neighbors of the free expression of their religion. In fact, I would defend their right to it with life and limb. Nevertheless, our faith is missionary not in the jihadist sense but as the inherent impulse of the gospel itself as good news that must be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. The above-cited Register article reports, “‘I don’t know if you have noticed this, but God likes variety,’ Warren told an audience of 8,000 Muslims at a Washington, D.C. convention in 2009, according to a transcript published by the religion news website beliefnet. ‘People of all beliefs (can) be, and discuss, and, yes, even disagree, without demeaning or debasing each other.’”

Certainly it is true that we should engage in civil conversation. It is not merely democratic values, but the New Testament, that requires Christians to love their neighbors regardless of the response. However, to tell Muslim friends, “I don’t know if you have noticed this, but God likes variety,” is to imply that God approves idolatry as if it were equivalent to the diversity that God does in fact like—indeed, creates—when he saves people “from every tribe, kindred, language, and people” by his blood (Rev 5:9).

Neighbor-Love without Illusions

My second misgiving is subordinate to the first, but perhaps worth mentioning. I do not doubt that there are many Muslims who embrace democratic values, but it is naïve for Christians to assume that Islam is simply a religion, much less one that is freely embraced. Ask any devout Muslim.

Until we come to understand, respect, and respond to Islam in all of its difference, we will not prepared to love our neighbors properly. Islam does not proclaim good news to the world, which is freely embraced by faith apart from political coercion. Islam makes no distinction between mosque and state. In fact, the nation that matters ultimately is Islam: the ummah or community of Muslims around the world. This is not only an international kingdom of those who are joined spiritually to each other in a common faith, but a political state. Islam is a totally-encompassing geo-political, social, legal and cultural system. Whatever divergences may be allowed by specific rulers, Islam itself does not recognize, much less tolerate, any idea of a state that permits the free exercise of religion. Believing that all people are by nature Muslim, Islam divides the world sharply not into believers and unbelievers, Muslims and non-Muslims, but rather into believers and apostates (“infidels”). The latter are called Dhimmis—literally, “one whose responsibility has been taken.” If they are allowed to live within the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam), it is only as apostates who may not practice their faith (at least openly), much less seek to convert others to it. The non-Muslim world is Dar al-Harb (“House of War”).

Now, it doesn’t take much research to show that Christians have failed gravely in their discipleship. Our hands are stained with the blood of “Christendom,” which in many ways was indistinguishable from Islam in its “one-kingdom” confusion. The difference, though, is that when we have confused Christ and culture, we have acted in clear violation of the teaching of the New Testament. However, Islamic states are only inconsistent with their sacred texts when they do not impose sharia, declare holy war, and extend the universal caliphate of Allah to the ends of the earth as a political empire. Whether through patient moderation or radical extremism, Islam remains a worldwide culture that is only secondarily religious. One may endure a liberal democratic compromise for a time, but only for a time.

For example, it was reported last week that Muslims in Switzerland are setting up their own “parallel parliament,” called the Ummah Schweiz, based on sharia law rather than the common laws of Switzerland (http://www.stonegateinstitute.org/2863/muslim-parliament-switzerland). It is becoming increasingly clear that Islam is fundamentally committed to an absolute and all-encompassing control of territories and nations even where its adherents are a minority.

Love and War

The holy wars that God commanded in the old covenant were types, a mere foretaste of the final judgment when Christ returns. Yet we are now living in the period between Christ’s two advents when the kingdoms of this age are ruled by God’s common grace while his church grows and expands by his gospel. In Matthew 5, Jesus makes it clear that the era of a holy land, with holy war, is suspended. Instead of driving the idolaters out of his land, we are to proclaim the good news, endure persecution without retaliation, and pray for our enemies. No matter how Islam continues to expand its reign of terror across the globe, focusing especially on Christ’s co-heirs, believers everywhere must resist any appeal to political coercion to defend the faith. Like Paul, who appealed his case to Caesar on the basis of his Roman citizenship, we may invoke our Constitutional liberties, but we must not claim any political privileges beyond the freedom to practice the Christian faith, including the freedom to evangelize which is at the heart of that faith.

There are at least three easy ways of avoiding the command to love our Muslim neighbors. The first is to ignore them, to pretend that America is a “Christian nation” and that the “other” does not really exist. That’s a version of the group narcissism I referred to above. The second is to demonize them, as if they were not fellow image-bearers of God whom we are called to love and serve and to whom we are called to bring the gospel. The third way is to try to establish some religious common ground that can make them seem less “other” and more like us, so that we can love them. The hardest thing is to love them simply because they are our neighbors and, as such, make a claim on us in all of their difference from us, a claim that we cannot ignore precisely because God’s law and his gospel are true—and savingly true—for them as well as for us. May we all pray for more of this kind of love.