If anything, “Halloween and the Local Mosque” revealed that out of the mouths of babes the joke was mostly on us—the long-time grown-ups. However, the moment also pushed me to begin to unequivocally lead my family past the masks and misunderstandings. If hope is to truly contend with fear, the most significant step forward for any follower of Jesus—for the community of Jesus—is, as ever, the soft power of Christian love, strongly applied to Muslims.
In the foreword for Sharon D. Welch’s Real Peace, Real Security: The Challenges of Global Citizenship, William F. Schulz, a former director for Amnesty International, writes that “the appropriate response to a recognition of our own demons is not to demonize others.” Just the opposite, he says. In the face of a world hell-bent on us-versus-them and blinded in both eyes by the “enemy” paradigm, Schulz urges Christians and others to intentionally “seek out common bonds.”
Recalling that first mosque potluck in Clemson, South Carolina, the differences and barriers were as obvious and glaring as watching my wife and two-year-old daughter walk into the mosque through a separate entrance for women. Yet, I also remember watching my oldest son—then five years old—participate in an impromptu “pillow fight” with large cushions. Among his school-age combatants were brown-skinned boys with Middle Eastern and South Asian names. Apparently, there is a universal tendency of young boys to initiate physical games that may or may not need parental intervention.
Acknowledging real differences does not require us to dismiss or devalue possible commonalities.
Having played the guest, it was now time to play the host.
Of course, living in upstate South Carolina and, later, in Richmond, Virginia, one comes to realize—quickly and not a little ironically—the stark limitations of that much fabled thing called “Southern hospitality.” But when understood as a Christian virtue, not merely a cultural custom at the mercy (or whims) of social values, hospitality is that thing which flows from the wellspring of God’s lavish generosity—especially as expressed in the gift of Jesus Christ. In the manner, then, in which we have received all that we receive from God, we are to give.
Expressing Christ-drenched hospitality to Muslims is one form of gospel-witness to the specific warmth and light and life that is uniquely found in Jesus. It becomes a tangible demonstration of Christ in the everyday world, which, God knows and we surely know, is often painfully characterized by coldness, alienation, and exclusion.
Two months or so after I watched my kids almost spew out grape leaves onto the mosque carpet, my wife and I invited Tanju (Turkish professor), Abdul (Ghanaian PhD student), and Achour (Algerian post-doctoral fellow) over to our house for chicken parmigiana—an all-American meal passed on to us by a previous group of outsiders. Tanju and Abdul, both of whom were married, brought along their spouses. Achour—in effect married to his research—thankfully did not bring it along.
Somewhere in between the main course, bites of garlic toast, and sips of sweet tea, Tanju revealed that in a month he would be going on hajj, an obligatory pillar of Islamic spirituality for any Muslim who is physically and financially able to make the journey to Mecca once in his or her lifetime. Although pilgrimage was a common practice in late-antiquity Judaism and Christianity, the hajj has its roots in the pre-Islamic Arabian custom of an annual pilgrimage to Mecca involving the performance of various rites.
During this five-day period within the twelfth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslim pilgrims enact several purification rites, including walking counterclockwise around a large, black cube called the Kaaba, believed to be the sanctuary of God; running in between two hills outside Mecca to remember Hagar’s wanderings with Ishmael; rejecting the Devil—symbolically—by throwing stones at designated pillars; and sacrificing animals during the culminating event known as Eid al-Adha (“Festival of the Sacrifice”) to commemorate Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of his son.
As Tanju detailed his trip to Mecca, you could see the hope and desire in his eyes. At its best, I thought, here is the true human heart, longing for—admitting the need for—an otherworldly forgiveness. Achour chimed in, “Nathan, if Tanju completes the rites of hajj, it’s like becoming a baby again.”
Is this what hospitality can do for Christians and Muslims? Can it bring us around a table with each other? Can it bring us out into the open with each other? Can it bring us into a sincere appreciation for and solidarity with each other—in the middle of difference, at the intersections of commonality?
Miroslav Volf, author of Allah: A Christian Response, has said, “Islam and Christianity [have] a different way of understanding precisely what God demands and, more fundamentally, what God gives,” but, “the overlaps are very impressive.” “We need to build on what is similar rather than simply bemoan what’s different,” Volf urges.
Suddenly I flashed to the story of Jesus encountering that highly religious inquirer named Nicodemus. He also had the look of second birth in his eyes.
Loving our Muslim Neighbors: Soft Power, Strongly Applied is a Monday blog series written by Nathan F. Elmore for Off the Page. Nathan serves Peace Catalyst International as a peacemaker and educator in Christian-Muslim relations. Here, and throughout the series, we are hopeful of moving further toward Christian faithfulness, wisdom, and courage as we interact with the neighbor who is Muslim.