Is it wrong to say Christians and Muslims worship the same God? What we can learn from Jesus and the Samaritans

Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins wearing a hijab for Advent, in solidarity with Muslims

Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins wearing a hijab for Advent, in solidarity with Muslims (source: Facebook)

Wheaton College has suspended a professor for expressing her solidarity with Muslims.

According to school officials (and contrary to some initial headlines) it was not because she donned a hijab for Advent. It was her choice of words and not her attire that got her into trouble. Specifically, these words:

I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.

Her statement, by the way, is not altogether different from something the Second Vatican Council declared half a century ago:

The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Or what Miroslav Volf, a favorite theologian among many evangelicals (and rightly so), has written:

The two [Yahweh and Allah] are one God, albeit differently understood.

But these days, when serious candidates boost their poll numbers with promises to shut our doors to all Muslims and carpet bomb our enemies into oblivion, publicly declaring a belief that Christians and Muslims pray to the same God can get you into trouble.

A couple years ago, Jesse Wheeler shared five reasons he believes Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In his post, Jesse drew a parallel to the situation in Jesus’ day between Jews and Samaritans—a parallel worth exploring in more detail.

—//—

Tensions ran high between Samaritans and Jews, to say the least. Samaritans reportedly attacked Jewish pilgrims and tried to desecrate their temple. The Jewish Scriptures portrayed Samaritans in an almost entirely negative light—declaring all their kings corrupt and questioning the legitimacy of their kingdom (even though it was the heavy-handed policies of Solomon and his successor that drove a wedge between the Samaritans’ ancestors and the rest of Israel).

Samaritans claimed to be true Israelites, descendants of those left behind when the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. Jewish tradition, however, regarded them as outsiders—as foreigners sent by the kings of Assyria to resettle a depopulated land.

Samaritans worshiped at Mount Gerizim (near the Palestinian city of Nablus), while Jews insisted the temple in Jerusalem was the only legitimate place of worship. By the time Jesus was born, the dispute had been going on for centuries.

Samaritans and Jews had different holy books. The Jewish canon included all 39 books known to Christians as the Old Testament. Samaritans recognized only the first five books—and, even then, they had their own version. Imagine a Christian sect throwing out 85% of the Bible. Samaritans and Jews even had competing versions of the Ten Commandments.

Different houses of worship. Different holy books. Different understandings of God. If you had asked a Samaritan or a Jewish person whether they worshipped the same God, they probably would have said no.

It was this refusal to see any common identity or heritage that led to each side to view the other as, well, precisely that.

Other.

According to one Mishnah passage, “He that eats the bread of Samaritans is like to the one who eats the flesh of swine.” Both sides treated the other with contempt, fear, and suspicion, because they could not see—or refused to see—anything they held in common. Anything that might bind them together.

But when Jesus encountered Samaritans, he turned this “othering” tendency on its head.

Jesus traveled through Samaritan territory, when most Galileans took the long way around.

He struck up a conversation with a Samaritan woman, violating multiple norms at once. He put himself in her care, requesting (and likely receiving) water from a Samaritan well.

Now, at no point in the ensuing conversation did Jesus water down his identity; he even suggested that he thought Jews were closer to the truth—or at least closer to the source of it. Yet when it came to the question of whether Jews and Samaritans pray to the same God, his answer was an unequivocal yes. Samaritans “worship the Father,” he said—the same God his people worshiped.

Jesus could see a common heritage with those his own people had dismissed as “other.” His willingness to see commonality and not just difference created possibilities that didn’t exist before—possibilities for new relationships, possibilities for coming together, possibilities for the common good.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_033

The Good Samaritan, by Rembrandt

On another occasion, Jesus went even further, making a Samaritan the hero of his most famous parable. To many of Jesus’ listeners, the Samaritan who saved the injured traveler was a heretic at best and an idolater at worst. Yet he was the one in Jesus’ story who best embodied Judaism’s second greatest commandment—not the Jewish priest, not the Levite.

Jesus could see that Samaritans and Jews worshiped the same God. He could envision a Samaritan with a superior understanding of God and how God wants us to live.

So why can’t we see the same in our Muslim neighbors today?

Acknowledging that we worship the same God doesn’t mean we ignore, discard, or diminish everything that’s distinct about our respective faiths. It should not mean we become religious relativists. Rather, it means we’re able to see something that transcends our (very real) differences—something that matters more than what makes us distinct. A common heritage. Our shared humanity.

Miroslav Volf says that it is “fearful people bent on domination” who cannot (or perhaps will not) see the possibility for common ground between Christians and Muslims.

Painting a picture of total and irreconcilable difference is an effective way of justifying endless conflict. But it’s not a good way to wage peace. It’s not a good way to make the world safe.

As Volf put it:

As to the 1.6 billion Muslims, with them we must build a common future, one based on equal dignity of each person, economic opportunity and justice for all and freedom to govern common affairs through democratic institutions. Muslims and Christians have a set of shared fundamental values that can guide such a vision partly because they have a common God.

Acknowledging our common heritage and our shared humanity is the first step toward working together for the common good.

Image credit

How Islam is no more a “religion of violence” than is my faith

Muslims for peace

Sometimes a single Facebook post can restore your faith in humanity just a little bit.

Like when a friend who’s a Boston-area church leader shared that she was engaging in a dialogue with her Muslim counterparts, reflecting together on the Boston bombings and the days ahead.

What a concept.

Talking WITH people of the Islamic faith instead of just talking ABOUT them or, worse, listening to Bill O’Reilly talk about them.

On his show, O’Reilly complains that too many Muslims are “silent” about violence perpetrated in the name of their religion. Yet as my friend pointed out after actually spending time with Muslim leaders, they have condemned these acts repeatedly. They see them — and denounce them — as heretical distortions of their faith.

But they feel like their voice gets ignored by a 24-hour news cycle which prefers a simpler narrative.

O’Reilly says he can’t hear any Muslim voices denouncing violence. Maybe if he stopped pontificating for two minutes and tried listening…

The truth is, we all see and hear what we want to. And we’re all blind to that which we just don’t want to see.

“Islam is a religion of violence.”

That’s the prevailing notion among many Christians, most of whom don’t know a single Muslim person.

Perhaps these Christians heard a fragment of the Quran that sounds like it’s promoting violence. Usually quoted without any context.

Sometimes it’s not even that. Sometimes it’s just what we think the Quran says — because, let’s be honest: most of us (myself included) couldn’t quote a single word of Islam’s holy book if we had to.

Sure. Islam has its “problem texts.”

But I’m a Christian, and that means I’ve got my share of problem texts to deal with too.

Then Israel made this vow to the Lord: “If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities.” The Lord listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns. (Numbers 21:2-3)

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” [Moses] asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. Now kill all the boys [Heb. taf, or “little children”]. (Numbers 31:15-18)

At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them — men, women and children. We left no survivors… the Lord our God gave us all of them. (Deuteronomy 2:34-36)

You must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. (Deuteronomy 13:15)

In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as the Lord your God has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)

The church has various ways of dealing with these and other violent texts in the Bible. Some Christians suggest they’re no longer applicable because they’re Old Testament, as if genocide was all well and good for Israel but not so much for us today.

Some traditions read these texts allegorically. Others question their historicity, noting that archaeologists have unearthed scant evidence for any wholesale extermination of Canaan’s indigenous population during the second millennium BC.

Still others have pointed out similarities between the Old Testament’s violent imagery and that of other ancient Near Eastern religions, suggesting the Israelites borrowed some less-than-ideal notions about God and violence from their neighbors.

And some of us would note that whatever path you take to get there, eventually you end up with Jesus, whose Sermon on the Mount puts a categorical stop to the whole “death to our enemies” business.

So yes, we have ways of dealing with our problem texts. But they’re still in the Bible. They’re still etched into parchment, there for anyone to read. Seemingly legitimizing violence, warfare, genocide.

The thing is, if someone used these texts to typecast Christianity as a religion of violence (as some indeed have), I wouldn’t be too happy about it. I’d probably say they were proof-texting my holy book. That they hadn’t considered the full scope of Christian thought and the various options for interpreting these problem texts.

I would probably suggest that as outsiders who are evidently hostile to Christianity, they probably aren’t the best ones to judge whether Christianity is, in fact, a religion of violence.

So why do we think it’s OK for us to read a handful of verses from the Quran and conclude that Islam is a religion of violence?

I don’t want someone demonizing my faith on the basis of a few “problem texts.” So maybe I should treat people of other faiths with the same courtesy. Maybe I should give my Muslim neighbors the same benefit of the doubt that I want them to give me.