A little while ago, a colleague told me a vexing parable:
What would happen if Mohammed and Jesus came back to earth?’
They would first embrace each other and then spit on their followers!
Behind this arresting parable lies a recognition that the teachings of Jesus and Mohammed align on many vital issues.
However, a visiting Martian would struggle to see this, especially when observing the behaviour of followers of Jesus and Mohammed, behaviour that is more often characterised by fear of the other rather than love.
In the spiritual treasury of Christianity, there is a practice which, if engaged with wisdom, would show the visiting Martian something different.
This practice is called confession.
It does not entail acknowledging what we have done wrong; instead, it focuses on uncovering our ultimate loyalties.
The loyalty of all but a few is to their own identity, worldview, and tribe.
Everyone sees the world through their own eyes, and the sense we make of what we perceive is deeply influenced by the tribe or group we identify with.
Tribes encode fears about those who are different, weaving these fears into indispensable cultural values.
In the West, we are often encouraged to associate ‘Muslim’ with ‘jihadist’ or terrorist. This identification triggers anxiety.
Moreover, religious teaching often confirms such suspicions.
Religious leaders frequently draw on those parts of their scriptures that generate anxiety if not disdain for those who believe differently.
Church leaders in the Christian faith who do so neglect the numerous stories and teachings in the scriptures that stress the importance of welcoming the other and the stranger (there are similar stories and teachings in the Koran)
If only each one of us could acknowledge, ‘Yes, my ultimate loyalty is to what I already know, to the way I see it, to the way I have been taught.’
Then, we could begin to contemplate and consider what lies outside our domain.
We might even begin to listen to the other, the stranger, a Muslim…
The best forms of confession acknowledge what we hold dear. At the same time, they allow us to glimpse that our grasp of truth is partial.
In the parable, Jesus and Mohammed move beyond identity politics to embrace each other. In the parable, they then spit on their followers because they cannot do likewise.
Several years ago, I was on a plane trip from Istanbul to Dubai. A few rows behind me, a young man was sitting and avidly reading his Koran.
He seemed like a pleasant person and smiled at me. My overwhelming response was fear: what if he had a bomb? My reaction was instinctive.
It took a little while to reason my way beyond this fear. Afterwards, I felt a bit ashamed of myself but also relieved.
Fear is compelling, and it is the antithesis of faith.
A helpful way to deal with these fears is to welcome and meet those we label as different; even better, allow them to influence our understanding of life.
This is one way to break down the walls that separate ‘us’ from ‘them.’
Adapting Galatians 3:28, we could then affirm that in Christ there is no longer slave or free, Jew or Gentile, them or us.