On Saturday March 17, Pope Shenouda, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, died at the age of 88. The Coptic Church in Egypt numbers an estimated ten million Christians, and the Pope (the title was used to describe the bishop of Alexandria before it was used to describe the bishop of Rome) ruled as its chief pastor for forty years. I leave an analysis of his lasting legacy to hands more skilled than mine, hands more experienced in understanding the delicate dance that any Christian leader must do in an Islamic land. For now, I would like to reflect from my home safe in the far west upon something that this eastern Pope had to deal with every day of his long life—that is, how to deal with one’s Islamic neighbours. How should we in North America regard the Muslims with whom we share our countries, our schools and our workplace?
First of all, we should regard him as our neighbour—and not just in the sociological sense, as someone who resides near us, but also in the theological sense, as someone given to us by God to love and serve. The commandment is clear: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Lev. 19:18, Mk. 12:31). Legalistic minds have striven to minimize this commandment and to find inventive ways of circumventing it. They have asked, “But, after all, who is my neighbour?”, trying to make the definition as narrow as possible, and the list of people on the “Must Love” list as short as possible. When someone asked our Lord that question with that intention, He responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan (see Lk. 10:25-37), and if you read the passage carefully, you will observe that Christ never did quite answer the question. The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbour?”, and Christ responded with direction about how to be a neighbour (v. 36). The lawyer was looking for a list of duties; Christ responded with a call to find opportunities. If one insisted upon translating Christ’s reply from parable to precept to answer the lawyer’s question, it would be this: your neighbour is the person standing next to you. And for us that includes Muslims.
The primary fact about a Muslim therefore is that God made him, and that Christ died for him. As St. Paul said in the pagan world in which he lived, “God is the Saviour of all men, especially of believers” (1 Tim. 4:10). This divine fact provides our mandate: we must love our Muslim neighbour because God is his loving Saviour. The Muslim might not yet know or acknowledge that, but it remains true nonetheless, and the fact that God loves someone means we must love that person too.
Secondly, in a world that is full of lies, we must rejoice in whatever truth our neighbour has and reaffirm it. Islam gets lots of things right. In a world riddled with polytheism, it proclaims monotheism; in a world darkened by immorality, it upholds standards of morality. Its truth is partial, of course. Everything true in this age is in some sense partial —including our own knowledge of God and our prophecy (see 1 Cor. 13:9). But this dilution and partiality do not negate its value. Even half-truths are useful, if you know which half to take and which half to reject. Something isn’t necessarily wrong because we find it in the Qur’an. Our refusal to accept the Qur’an as divine revelation does not also entail an inability to read it as poetry. And some of the poetry is not bad.
Finally, we must be prepared to tell our Muslim neighbours the truth—that is, the Gospel. This follows from the commandment to love, for if we love someone we want them to be happy, and anyone’s eternal happiness depends upon truly knowing God. I am not prepared to say that all Muslims are going to Hell. The question of anyone’s eternal destiny, whether Christian, Muslim or secular, is for God to decide, for He alone can see the secrets of men’s hearts. God is quite capable of keeping score, and does not need help from us. Our task is more modest—simply to speak the truth as we understand and experience it—in other words, to act as a witness, in Greek, a martys. If one witnesses in certain parts of the world (Egypt may be one), one may find oneself a martys or martyr in more ways than one. That is all in God’s hands. Our task remains constant. We must tell our Muslim friends that there is indeed but one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And this Father has always lived and reigned with His eternal Son and His eternal Spirit. God now calls us all to become His adopted children through baptism and discipleship to Jesus, and offers us forgiveness of sins and eternal life when we live as part of His Church. Proclaiming this humbly and plainly is not anti-ecumenical triumphalism; it is faithfulness to God and love to our neighbour. Evangelism, as someone once said, is simply one hungry beggar telling another hungry beggar where to get bread. Our Muslim neighbour is as hungry as we would be without Christ. Love for him demands that we share with him the good news of where to get the bread.