Q & R: On Ramadan, relevant to today’s countdown quote

I just received this question as part of a long and meaningful email from a bright young South African … it seemed especially relevant to today’s countdown quote …

I have just read 3 of your books in one month (You are more ready than you realize, Finding Faith, Church on the other side). I must admit, our local Christian Bookstore had a sale, so everytime after finishing one, I went back for more. Thankyou for your honesty and humility; these two traits permeate the pages of your books, and I believe it gently challenges the reader also.
The main reason for me writing you is because of a news report concerning you in one of our national Christian magazines a few months ago. They claimed that you decided to celebrate Ramadaan (don’t know how to spell that…shows my ignorance) with the Moslems. The magazine’s comment on your actions was quite negative and they quoted scripture to condemn your approach. So, my question is thus, what was your motive and purpose in doing what you did? And please elaborate your side of the story.
I believe that your perspectives are needed in our country and when I’m confronted with the above mentioned info, I would love to give an informed answer, so as to further the Kingdom’s cause.

Response after the jump …

Thanks for your question, and the many encouragements that came through your email. If you search the word “ramadan” on my site, you’ll find detailed explanations about my decision to participate, along with some of my learnings from the experience – which continue to this day by the way.
I haven’t seen the specific article you’re referring to, but the best general response I can think of at the moment is to refer to this quote from my upcoming book:

We wake up each day in a world whose very future is threatened by interreligious fear, hatred, and violence. Many of us wonder if there is a way to have both a deep identity in Christ and an irenic, charitable, neighborly attitude toward people of other faiths. (21)

My suspicion is that the writer for the magazine reacted negatively to my participation in the Ramadan fast for one or more of these reasons:

1. They see Muslims as the enemy to be resisted and conquered or converted, and any attempt to live peacefully and respectfully with Muslims as neighbors is seen as “fraternizing with the enemy.”
2. They are worried that respectful sharing with people of other religions will lead to a reduction of Christian commitment and identity. In other words, unless you see other religions as an enemy or competitor, your commitment to your own religion will be reduced.
3. They are troubled by people mixing and matching cafeteria-style among religions – a little Evangelicalism here, a little Catholicism there, a little Pentecostalism here, a little Buddhism there, etc.

Let me respond – very briefly – in reverse order.
3. I carefully explained in earlier posts that I was participating in Ramadan as a committed Christian, not as a confused maybe-Christian-Muslim. I asked Eboo Patel, a respected friend who is a committed Muslim – and who understands and respects this approach to inter-religious friendship – to serve as my partner or mentor in the fast, and it was clear to both of us that neither of us would want the other to be unfaithful to the faith tradition to which he belongs. In fact, if you ever read Eboo’s story (his book is wonderful), you’ll read how he and a friend (as I recall) once approached the Dalai Lama with some interest in becoming Buddhist, but the Dalai Lama’s response was something like this: Don’t become a Buddhist! Be a better Muslim! So both Eboo and I want people to have a clear and honest identity within their tradition … but we also want people to develop respectful friendship across traditions whenever possible, as an expression of their own fidelity. (More on this in a minute.) And of course, if people feel God is leading them to convert to another faith tradition, they should be free to do so, but never forced. (My hunch is that more people would be attracted to a faith characterized by an irenic, respectful, loving attitude in its adherents than by a hostile, fearful, or combative attitude.)
2. Over the years, I’ve had to do something that was very difficult. I’ve had to make a choice between being faithful to my conservative-American-Evangelical-Charismatic-Religious/Right-Calvinist-etc. peer community – which I love and to whom I owe a lot, and being faithful to Jesus – whom I love even more and to whom I owe everything – as I have honestly encountered him in the gospels and in life. (I’ve written about this struggle in a few of my books – especially the New Kind of Christian trilogy, and A Generous Orthodoxy. Maybe there will be another sale at the bookstore soon!)
So, my desire to build respectful friendships – where I receive as well as give, where I learn as well as share – is, to me, an expression of fidelity to Jesus as my Lord, Teacher, and Example. Jesus constantly transgressed boundaries that his religious peers held as sacred. He constantly scandalized them by befriending (even eating with!) those considered unclean, outsiders, sinners, the enemy, etc. In fact, even if we consider people of other religions to be enemies (which I don’t), he called us to love our enemies … confounding the “in-out/us-them” thinking of his (and many of our) peers.
So I understand that respectful inter-religious friendship can be seen as a betrayal of the constricted identity of my religious peer group that wants to keep the walls high between us and them, thus keeping insiders and outsiders far apart. But in South Africa and the United States alike, we have seen where this kind of religiously-inspired “apartness” can lead and we know now that what seemed like faithfulness to our forefathers was actually a betrayal of the gospel from which they, in time, turned, thank God.
So loving my neighbor – including my neighbor of another religion – is not (to me) unfaithfulness to Jesus or to Christian identity: it is faithfulness. And if religious gatekeepers – perhaps like the writer in this magazine (which again, I haven’t read, but am guessing based on your inquiry) – if gatekeepers tell me that I cannot befriend and learn from people who are my neighbors, this will simultaneously force me to weaken my identity as a member of their religiously-gated community and strengthen my identity with and commitment to Jesus. To be bound to Jesus is to be bound to my neighbor, including the Samaritan woman by the well, the Syrophonecian woman with the demonized daughter, the Roman Centurion with the sick servant, the woman caught in adultery, the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius and his household, and so on.
1. Sadly, this kind of us-them, brother-enemy thinking is very widespread and deep-seated among both Christians and Muslims, just as it used to be among Catholics and Protestants, whites and non-whites, Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals, etc. It is intended to build strong identity and commitment, but as unintended consequences, it can produce prejudice, fear, hate, violence, terrorism, counter-terrorism, denial of human rights, even genocide. I can see only three possible outcomes of this hostile attitude among adherents of the world’s two largest religions (about a third Christian and a quarter Muslim):

a. Christians may forcefully defeat, humiliate, contain, and control or convert all Muslims,
b. Muslims may forcefully defeat, humiliate, contain, and control or convert all Christians,
c. Muslims and Christians will learn to live in peace as mutually respectful neighbors, as Jesus (whom we Christians believe to be the Word Incarnate, and who is a great prophet for Muslims) taught.

To me, the worst possible outcome would be “a,” because by forcefully defeating, humiliating, containing, controlling, and converting others, “Christians” would no longer be Christian. Outcome “b” would be a close second worst outcome, leaving the only desirable outcome as “c.” If the writer in the magazine agrees that “c” is a desirable outcome, then even if he disagrees with my decision to participate in the Ramadan fast in 2009, we can work together. (If you send me a link to the article, I’d love to read it.) If he leans toward “a,” then he is doing the right thing (in his mind) to oppose me, just as his Muslim counterparts would do to anyone who dares cross “enemy lines.”
Sadly, there is too much truth to these strong words from Frank Schaeffer …
Interestingly, during and since the fast, I’ve heard from an amazing array of people – Christian, Muslim, and other – who feel God calling them to build respectful relationships with the other, not as a compromise of their deepest faith commitments, but as an expression of them. So I hope this begins to explain why I do not see Muslims as my enemies, but as my neighbors, and why I feel this approach is the only way for me to be faithful to Jesus Christ my Lord.
I was in Rwanda a couple of years ago and at one of the genocide sites, there was a sign that included the quote of a little girl: “If you knew me, you would not kill me.” Through my participation in Ramadan, I got to know my Muslim neighbors a little better, and in so doing, I experienced the blessedness Jesus spoke of in the beatitudes. I hope you and others will experience this blessedness – by getting to know someone who up to now has been considered “the other.” It’s beautiful how God meets us in the last places we would normally expect.