Letter to the Editor: Interfaith Dialogue or Preaching in the Name of?

BY HAROON RESEARCHER

To the Editor,

Interfaith dialogue or preaching in the name of?

On Monday November 6, Memorial Church hosted lectures by two charismatic Christian speakers, Carl Medearis and Heidi Baker, the latter of whom is currently living in Mozambique and has reportedly cured countless sick and dying people through the teachings of Jesus. The former was not scheduled to speak that day, an event in his honor had been hosted the previous day, but he was asked to fill in the time that day as the guest speaker had been delayed on her way to the Church. I, a Muslim, was asked by a Christian friend to accompany him to hear about the miracles that Heidi had performed in Mozambique.

In the ‘filler speech’ by Carl Medearis, he spoke about his experiences among the Muslims in the Middle East, having spent many years there trying to spread the message of Jesus, and engaged in what I assumed to be an effort to build an understanding of the Christian faith amongst Muslims and vice-versa. In fact, as he described it, he was there to simply talk about Jesus. He spoke about Muslim/Islamic attitudes about Christ, describing them as very affirming and open minded, much to the surprise of many of the listeners, he also mentioned that the Holy Quran speaks very favorably about Jesus close to one hundred times. Although I was initially surprised by the genuine astonishment among many of his listeners at these comments, having taken all the he said about Islamic attitudes towards Jesus as self-evident, my surprise turned to shock as the speaker suddenly described the Islamic belief about Jesus as “appalling.” The particular belief which the speaker described as appalling was the teaching that Jesus was not actually crucified but was taken up to heaven before the crucifixion, that he will return before the Day of Judgment as the Messiah, and that the person crucified was another man sent by God to replace Jesus. Further, Islam teaches that Jesus was not the son of God but a messenger sent by God for the guidance of mankind, indeed that God is unique and did not beget nor was he begotten. “Appalling,” I thought to myself as it began to dawn on me that the speaker was not describing his experiences in the Middle East as an effort to build an interfaith dialogue between the Christians and Muslims, but rather, that he was simply a preacher. The speaker seemed to overlook the fact that his self-described attitude of openness among Muslims towards Jesus, references to Jesus in the Holy Quran, and the Islamic acceptance of Jesus as a rightly-guided messenger of God did not require him to preach the message of Jesus, which, by his own admission, was already an accepted fact. Further, it seems clear that someone who goes to talk to Muslims about Jesus, thinking their beliefs to be appalling, is clearly not engaging in a constructive effort at building a mutual understanding and tolerance for each other’s differing set of belief systems, but is there to convert, or at least prove himself and his teachings to be superior. Someone with such strong and negative views about Islam is hardly suited to play the role of a peacemaker.

The presumption which the speaker was rebutting spoke volumes about where he was coming from, and about the unspoken thoughts in the minds of his listeners. It was the underlying assumption of his entire speech that Muslims were not expected to be open to the teachings of Jesus (therefore the pleasant astonishment in the minds of the listeners which the speaker found soft comfort in, and therefore said more than he would venture to disclose in public). It almost seemed that the unfinished thought that underlay his presumption was precisely this: “they are not averse to talking about Jesus in the same way that we are closed to understanding Islam or speaking about the Prophet Muhammad.” Maybe I am reading too much into his statement because the aversion of non-Muslims (indeed of many Muslims as well) towards speaking about Islam could more reasonably be attributed to the intolerance and violence with which fanatical Muslims would greet any real or imagined unfavorable statement about Islam. That Muslims are expected to be intolerant towards Jesus or his teachings conveys a fundamental misconception and simple minded ignorance about Islam and Muslims. That there is need for redefining popular American views about Islam seems like a foregone conclusion.

One could debate the issue of whether Christian beliefs about Jesus are appalling or Islamic ones till the Day of Judgment itself (which is presumably when we would know for sure), and still disagree (and I don’t have the stomach or the least bit inclination to do so). However it seems clear that such remarks are themselves appalling. It is one thing to disagree with Islamic beliefs, and quite another to describe them as appalling. It is precisely such labeling which is the cause of much demonization, fear and hatred on both sides.

In all fairness, I do believe that Mr. Medearis deserves the benefit of the doubt and ought to have the opportunity to explain his comment. Nonetheless, the purpose of this letter is to condemn these and such similar remarks. If however the speaker stands by his statement, then let it be known so that those engaged in dialogue with him in the Middle East are freed of the misconception which I had been under in the beginning of his speech. They ought to know if it is interfaith dialogue or preaching in the name of (interfaith dialogue).

Haroon Jan Barylay, HLS Visiting Researcher

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