For God and Our Father Abraham: Towards a More Inclusive Witness for Jews, Christians, and Muslims
D. Jason Berggren
Instructor and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science
Florida International University
Polls show that Muslims across the world consider the United States “not religious enough.” Presumably, they mean “not Christian enough,” given the fact that Americans still overwhelmingly identify themselves as Christian. According to poll results from the 2003 Pew Global Attitudes Project, the following are the reported figures from ten Muslim communities surveyed that said the United States was “not religious enough”: Jordan (82%), Israel (82%), Indonesia (80%), Palestinian Authority (79%), Lebanon (78%), Kuwait (74%), Pakistan (71%), Nigeria (67%), Turkey (57%), and Morocco (52%).
As an American and an evangelical Christian, it would be irresponsible not to consider and reflect upon the significance of these survey figures. It is the view taken here that a large part of what is driving such views is the unbalanced approach the United States takes toward the situation in Israel-Palestine. The same Pew survey shows that many, if not most, of those surveyed from countries across the world, including Israel, believe that U.S. policies favor the Israelis over the Palestinians. Americans are the only ones surveyed that believe otherwise. Here’s what the Pew report concluded:
“U.S. policies toward the Middle East come under considerable criticism in the new poll. In 20 of 21 populations surveyed – Americans are the only exception – pluralities or majorities believe the United States favors Israel over the Palestinians too much. This opinion is shared in Israel; 47% of Israelis believe that the U.S. favors Israel too much, while 38% say the policy is fair and 11% think the U.S. favors the Palestinians too much.” (Emphasis added)
According to a recently released Gallup report (March 27, 2006), among those in the United States most sympathetic to the Israelis are “religious Americans.” While 59% of all Americans surveyed said they are more sympathetic to the Israelis compared to the 15% who said the Palestinians, the percentage of those who are sympathetic to the Israelis rises to 63% if they attend religious services at least once a week. Among those who are Republican and frequent churchgoers, sympathy for the Israelis climbs to 77% and sympathy for the Palestinians falls to 7%. These figures are troubling. For those of us who are Christian, our sympathies should be expressed for both Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims.
Rather than giving a scholarly piece, my purpose here is to provide some of my religious reflections as a Christian—an evangelical Christian in fact. It is my belief that if we are to move beyond the hatred, the bloodshed, and the mourning in the Middle East, we must first look to the Scriptures as our source and guide to provide a theological foundation for our efforts to build bridges and reconciliation between and among the three great peoples of the Book and the one, true God. Additionally, this piece offers Muslim readers proof-texts from the Bible with which to use to remind Christians and Jews of God’s love for them, too, and of His desire for all the physical and spiritual descendents of Abraham to work towards reconciliation and brotherhood.
Be a True Friend to Israel
Unfortunately, too many Christians in the United States have a tendency to praise Israel uncritically. That is, it seems as though Israel can only do right and commit no wrongs. As Christians, we are called to provide the prophetic voice in the world and to all governments, including our own and Israel’s. We must praise Israel when she does right and criticize her when she does wrong. As friends of Israel, we must truly be a friend, and friends are sometimes called to admonish, to say things to one another that may be hard for the other to hear, but must be said anyway. Honesty and open communication are the keys to a good friendship and fellowship.
Bring the Palestinians In
Unfortunately, too many Christians overlook, ignore, and even dismiss the Palestinians, their plight, their concerns, their hopes and dreams. For there to be peace and justice in the Middle East, namely in Israel-Palestine, we must invite the Palestinians to the table, we must befriend them too, earn their trust, give them the same respect through honesty and open communication, and embrace the fact that they have legitimate national aspirations, involving both land and sovereignty. Peace is not a one-way street; peace is bilateral and multilateral. Peace can occur only when each community is invited, respected, legitimized, and their grievances, hopes, dreams, are heard; and brokers for peace must be equally honest and candid with both sides. We, too, must commend the Palestinians when they do right and criticize when they do wrong. Again, these are the keys to a good friendship and fellowship.
Back to the Scriptures
A careful reading of the Bible reveals key principles that may assist us in providing a common foundation from which to begin and then build upon working towards peace in the region and amongst Jews, Christians, and Muslims globally. It is on these principles that I would like to dedicate the remainder of my time here. I am inspired by the life-long efforts of former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, an evangelical Christian and a Southern Baptist, whose greatest achievement of his presidency was his mediator role in the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. President Carter, a servant of God, said that the treaty between Israel and Egypt would never have been possible had he not been guided by his own faith and appealed to the faith of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Put simply, we are to “fight the good fight of faith” through “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness” (I Timothy 6:11-12).
God Calls Us to be Peacemakers
In what is called the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). This is not only good advice; it is a command from God through His Anointed One Jesus. As Christians, this is what we must do and become—peacemakers. And no where in our world today needs the peacemaker than in Israel-Palestine. In fact, the Bible specifically calls upon us to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalms 122:6), to say to her inhabitants “Peace be with you” (Psalms 122:8), and “speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her” (Isaiah 40:2) —a city of God, the place where His temple was built, where the first church was established, where the first mosque was built, where the Ark of the Covenant rested, a city founded by His servant David, a city where Jesus worshipped and preached, a city where the Prophet Muhammad encountered God and the things of Heaven, and a city where the three great faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam meet and live, and where we continue to find the awesome presence of God and physical markers of memory—the Wailing Wall, the Via Dolorosa, and the Dome of the Rock—of His participation through His servants in the world. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Jerusalem is God’s city, our city.
To round out the usual Christian message, we must include the Palestinians, Christians and Muslims, in our vision of peace and our commitment to justice. As we mourn and suffer with Israeli fathers and mothers during these troubling and trying times, we too must mourn and suffer with Palestinian fathers and mothers. And when we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, we must include in our prayers peace for all of Jerusalem’s inhabitants, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. This is a more complete, authentic, and inclusive Biblical witness.
God’s Covenant with Our Father Abraham
As Jews and Christians, we know that God established “an everlasting covenant” with Abraham and his descendants, both physical and spiritual. Jews are the physical descendants of Abraham and Christians, through Christ, are spiritual descendants (Galatians 3:6-9). What we fail to realize is that we Jews and Christians are not the only descendants of Abraham. Arabs and Muslims, through Ishmael, are descendants too, heirs of the promise. Ishmael has been long acknowledged as the physical forebear of the Arab people, and through the Prophet Muhammad, the message of the one, true God, the knowledge of our Father Abraham was brought to the Arab world and many other peoples that would not have heard the message or received the knowledge otherwise. As such, the peoples of the Arabic world, Muslim and Christian, are the physical and spiritual sons of Abraham. As Jews and Christians, we must recognize this, and once we recognize this, we can live to our fullest physical and spiritual potential with our fellow brothers and sisters under the one true God who revealed Himself so long ago to our common ancestor.
Together, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the three great monotheistic faiths, the three Abrahamic faiths, share in God’s promises to our mutual Father Abraham. By recognizing this, by emphasizing this, we may not only heal the wounds caused by our differences, resolve some of the most intractable conflicts in our world today, and bring peace to our lands, we present ourselves before God as worthy heirs of the promise God made to our mutual Father Abraham.
The Bible tells us that Abram, later to be renamed Abraham, had a vision from God. God said, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” God made Abram aware of two facts here: He is Abram’s protector and benefactor. God is Abram’s “shield” and the source of a very great reward.
But was this protection and reward for Abram only? No. According to Genesis, the blessings of God were to be passed on to Abraham’s descendants, namely Isaac and Ishmael. Through Isaac and Ishmael, the Bible says that God promised Abraham, which means “ancestor of a multitude,” “an everlasting covenant”:
“This is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations… I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your offspring after you”. (Genesis 17:4-7)
The seal of the God’s covenant was through the practice of male circumcision (Genesis 17:10-12). The Bible tells us that Abraham and his firstborn son Ishmael were circumcised the same day (Genesis 17:26), and later, eight days after his birth, Abraham’s second son Isaac was circumcised (Genesis 21:4).
While, according to the Bible, there was a parting of the ways of Ishmael and Isaac, a particularly telling point is noted at the funeral of Abraham: both his sons Ishmael and Isaac where present together to bury him in Hebron (Genesis 25:9). Should not the sons and daughters of Ishmael and Isaac today gather again and stand together at Hebron? Is there a better way to pay our respects to our common ancestor and to God than to reconcile ourselves to each other?
We are Brothers and Sisters under the One, True God
“Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?” (Malachi 2:10)
The Bible and the Quran proclaim that we, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, are sons and daughters of Abraham, thus we are brothers and sisters and co-heirs to the promises God made to Abraham. Should not we then live as brothers and sisters? Should not we love one another as God commands and as family members ought? Should we not share our material and immaterial blessings with one another? Should we not allow each to celebrate the one true God in his or her particular way, while recognizing that we all serve and submit to the same God? We believe the answer is yes. Consequently, as a form of solidarity, as part of our duty to love another, and as a recognition of our common bonds, each of us must be willing to say that “I am a Jew,” “I am a Christian,” and “I am a Muslim.”
What is love and how are we to love another? One of the most beautiful passages in all the Bible gives the answer to this question. It comes from I Corinthians. The Apostle Paul wrote,
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (13: 4-8, 13).
If we Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not love one another, God will ask us at judgement, as he asked Cain, “Where is your brother?”, “What have you done?”, “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:9-10).
The Bible warns those who do not love: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from Him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (I John 4:20-21). Given this commandment, I must be willing to sincerely say, “I am a Jew,” for he is my brother; “I am a Christian,” for he is my brother; and “I am a Muslim” because he is my brother. All are brothers and sisters through Abraham, a son of God and our common patriarch. “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, and from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…These are they who have come out of the great ordeal” (Revelation 7:9, 14).
Ancestors and Lands of the Muslim World in the Bible
I have already noted above key Biblical principles that we Christians must recall as we meet with and reconcile ourselves towards our Jewish brothers and sisters. However, very little has been done in reconciling Christians with our Muslim brothers and sisters. In addition to the points already made, there is evidence from the Bible that peoples and lands that would one day become part of dar al-islam played pivotal and heroic roles. For example, while many Christians are aware of the role ancient Egyptians had in the enslavement of the ancient Israelites and the plagues God sent upon the land and their Pharaoh, we forget and ignore Egypt’s role as a refuge for the people of God and a place sanctified by God. This is important and may even show that Egypt was in the processing of becoming one of the historical cornerstones of dar al-islam.
• Through an Egyptian slave woman, Hagar, Abraham was assured an heir, Ishmael, which means “God hears” (Genesis 16).
• After Joseph, son of Jacob, was sold into slavery by his brothers, he would become the right-hand man for an Egyptian Pharaoh (Genesis 41:37-46).
• At the invitation of Joseph and permission of the Egyptian Pharaoh, the people of Israel would take refuge in Egypt during a severe famine (Genesis 46-47).
• Moses was cared for and raised by the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh (Exodus 2:5-10).
• Moses received the Torah from God in the Sinai, which is part of modern-day Egypt (Exodus 19-20); Mount Sinai was sanctified by the glory of God.
• Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus found refuge in Egypt when King Herod sought to kill Jesus (Matthew 2:13-23).
Other examples in the Bible include:
• The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which run through modern-day were part of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:14). Today, these two rivers are in Iraq.
• Abraham was originally from Ur, a place in what is now part of Iraq (Genesis 11:28-31).
• Ruth was a pious Moabite woman; Moab is part of modern-day Jordan (Book of Ruth).
• The first king of Israel, Saul, was anointed by Samuel in Gilgal (I Samuel 10). Gilgal would be located today in the West Bank and likely part of a future Palestinian state.
• Cyrus the Great, a Persian king, ended the Jewish exile in Babylon and allowed Second Temple to be built in Jerusalem. The Bible calls him a shepherd and anointed one of God (Isaiah 44:28-45:1). Persia is now called Iran.
• The prophet Jonah sent by God to the city of Nineveh, once a great ancient city in what is now Iraq. The people there heeded and changed their ways (Jonah 3).
• Bethlehem, the city of King David and Jesus’ birth, is located in the West Bank and likely to belong to a future Palestinian state.
• Among those who first recognized the messiahship of Jesus were gift-bearing magi from the East (Matthew 2:1-12). It is believed that the magi may have come from Assyria (Iraq) or Persia (Iran).
• Jesus preached in “the district of Tyre and Sidon,” which is now part of Lebanon.
• Simon of Cyrene was chosen to carry the cross for Jesus (Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26). Lucius of Cyrene was an early Church prophet and teacher (Acts 13:1). Cyrene was a city located in what is now Libya.
• Christians were first called “Christians” in Antioch, which is now part of Syria (Acts 11:26).
• The Apostle Paul was from Tarsus, a city in what is now part of Turkey (Acts 9:11).
• Paul was converted by an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9); Paul was first aided by “a disciple in Damascus” named Ananias (Acts 9:10). Damascus is the modern-day capital city of Syria.
• Paul wrote letters to churches in Ephesus (Ephesians) and Colosse (Colossians), both were located in what is now Turkey.
Just as we Christians believe that the Hebrew Scriptures foretold the coming of Christ, is it possible that the Bible also foretold the spiritual transformation of the Middle East? Is it a coincidence that these lands and the ancestors of these people would eventually come to know the one, true God? I believe that one could construct a comprehensive theology on the coming of Islam and the transformation of the Middle East from these bits and pieces of Biblical evidence. As students of the Bible know, God often reveals key truths through names, numbers, images, peoples, and places. So, could it be that the Scriptural evidence above may be telling us something about the future course of the Middle East, God’s ongoing love for the sons and daughters of Ishmael? It appears that this is so.
God still hears the voice of Hagar and Ishmael, hears and sees their affliction in the Palestinian people and in their other descendents in the Middle East. And, God will again succor them in their anguish. As joint believers, we too must show love and fellowship with the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael. We do this for God and for our mutual father Abraham.
I will end with this. In his Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul, long recognized as the first great Christian theologian by Christian believers and scholars alike, outlined fundamental prescriptions for tranquil intra-religious and inter-religious relations that are worth summarizing. Paul reminded us that all have sinned and “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and that no one has a right to boast of who they are or what they have done (3:27). Rather, we all have need of God’s love, mercy, and compassion (Romans 6:23). God will reckon us as righteous, said Paul, if we, like father Abraham, simply believe in the one God of all creation (Romans 4:3) and if we do not judge fellow servants of God (Romans 2:1) or quarrel over religious opinions (Romans 14:1). We, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, co-travelers along the straight path, will only have peace in Israel-Palestine, throughout the Middle East, or where ever we are, if we individually and collectively fear God (Romans 3:17-18) and remember that “God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:11) to each person “who calls on the name of the Lord” (Romans 10:13).