23 January 2017

Pope on a Mission: Muslims in the Mix (2)

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The potential future effects of global climate change include more frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought in some regions and an increase in the number, duration and intensity of tropical storms. Credit: Left - Mellimage/Shutterstock.com, center - Montree Hanlue/Shutterstock.com. The potential future effects of global climate change include more frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought in some regions and an increase in the number, duration and intensity of tropical storms. Credit: Left - Mellimage/Shutterstock.com, center - Montree Hanlue/Shutterstock.com. http://climate.nasa.gov/effects/

In the second half of this blog post I make three points. After an introduction to Christian mission (and Islamic da’wa), I first argue that Pope Francis in his first encyclical is intentionally engaging in Christian mission. In fact, by addressing all humanity on an issue that impacts the whole planet with potentially disastrous consequences, he is leveraging his influence to promote dialogue for the common good. This for him is to shine the light of Jesus’ gospel.

My second point is to briefly show how evangelical mission thinking has been evolving in similar directions. I will illustrate this by looking at the most important recent evangelical global document on mission, the Lausanne Cape Town Commitment.

Finally – with even fewer words – I will contend that despite the troubling history of Muslim-Christian interaction in this area of mission, environmental education and activism, which goes hand in hand with poverty reduction, represents a fertile field of common witness today.


Christian mission and Muslim da’wa

Unlike other faiths, Islam and Christianity are “missionary” traditions, that is, both call on their adherents to spread their faith and bring others into the fold. The gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus giving his last charge to the disciples before ascending into heaven, including this central command, “go and make disciples of all the nations” (Mat. 28:19). In Luke-Acts, and in parallel fashion, before his ascension Jesus tells them,


“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere – in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the world” (Acts 1:8).


Many mosques in the English-speaking world are called “Islamic Dawah Center,” like this one in Houston, TX. The Arabic word da’wa (or dawah, or da’wah), means “to invite” and is used in several Qur’anic verses, notably:


“[Prophet] call [people] to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good teaching. Argue with them in the most courteous way …” (Q. 16:125)

“Who speaks better than someone who calls people to God, does what is right, and says, ‘I am one of the those devoted to God’?” (Q. 41:33).


Thus Muslims consider that da’wa is a duty, if not of every individual, at least of the ummah as a whole (Muslim community worldwide). The Texan convert to Islam, Yusuf Estes, in his answer to a query about this on his website (islamtomorrow.com) includes advice that Christians often use on this topic. First, he mentions that “Islam has the proof for everything that it teaches. Our sources [Qur’an and Sunna] are authentic and original.” Then this advice:


"Your actions are observed by others through your behavior and manners. You become the role model for what Islam is all about.

Both methods (dawah by words and actions) were used by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) when delivering the message of Islam. He was the perfect example of what he was calling the people to do. Ayesah, may Allah be pleased with her, said that if you would like to see a living example of the Quran walking, then simply look to Muhammad, peace be upon him. His life was the best example of the noble teachings and principles set forth in the Quran."

Muslims are supposed to advise everyone by using a gentle and simple approach to attract the hungry souls to the Way of Allah. For sure today more than ever, people need to know about Islam and be able to put it into practice. We all need an example to follow.


The shaykh here was beginning to engage in “a theology of mission.” Christian scholars of mission are called “missiologists.” One of the greatests in the last century was the South African David Bosch. As quoted by Scott Sunquist in his 2014 groundbreaking work, Understanding Christian Mission: Participating in Suffering and Glory (p. 11), Bosch described the Christian mission in these words:


“Mission is, quite simply, the participation of Christians in the liberating mission of Jesus, wagering on a future that verifiable experience seems to belie. It is the good news of God’s love, incarnated in the witness of a community, for the sake of the world” (Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, p. 518).


For the uninitiated, allow me to highlight several points:

  1. This is God’s mission – Jesus continues his “liberating mission” through his followers today. The Latin phrase is often used to capture this work of God: mission dei.
  2. God seeks to “liberate” people; first from sin (hence Christ’s redemption through the cross); but too, in following Jesus’ example in his healings and ministry to the poor and marginalized, this involves care for the poor and an effort to dismantle the unjust structures that keep them oppressed.
  3. Mission involves both proclamation (articulating the “good news”) and acts of mercy and justice
  4. It is the witness of a community, not just individuals
  5. It is global in scope (“all the nations,” in Jesus’ words). Today, we have come to realize that mission also involves action to protect the environment from human degradation, because all are affected by this “bad news.”


In the very beginning of his encyclical, Pope Francis wrote this:

“In my Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I wrote to all the members of the Church with the aim of encouraging ongoing missionary renewal. In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (3).


I made clear in my commentary on his Apostolic Exhortation that Pope Francis was calling his people (all Christians, actually) to be joyful missionaries (joy was in the title and throughout the text), heralds of good news for the world. So after spelling out in his first chapter all the dangers and devastation visited by humankind on their common planet, he turns to “The Gospel of Creation” in his next chapter. In his own words:


“Why should this document, addressed to all people of good will, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers? I am well aware that in the areas of politics and philosophy there are those who firmly reject the idea of a Creator, or consider it irrelevant, and consequently dismiss as irrational the rich contribution which religions can make towards an integral ecology and the full development of humanity. Others view religions simply as a subculture to be tolerated. Nonetheless, science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both” (45).


This pope is keenly aware of his great responsibility as the leader of about half of all the 2.2 billion Christians on earth and it is significant that he has chosen creation care as the topic of his first major document. For one thing, it is the first encyclical (the most official and weighty of all papal pronouncements) on this topic. For another, scientific evidence from all over the globe has been pouring in about the potentially catastrophic consequences of the rate at which the earth is heating up.

I believe a third reason is present here. Pope Francis wants Christians as Christians to make such a statement before the whole world. In other words, after calling his people to joyful witness, he leads by example by addressing all people of good will and by exhorting them to unite in caring for their common home. This also allows him to tie in some of the consistent themes of Catholic social doctrine, and in particular the dangers of a culture of consumerism that increases in many ways the oppression of the poor.

Who is he addressing in particular? People of faith of all stripes, and particularly the followers of the three monotheistic traditions, who believe in a Creator – in fact, in a Creator who calls his people to manage well the bounty with which he has blessed them. He also talks about the necessary dialog between science and religion, of which his encyclical is a great example. He takes all the sciences seriously, quoting scientists throughout, including also the social sciences. People of faith must be clear-eyed and informed about the latest research on all the issues that bear upon our life together on this Earth.

Here is a good summary of his position:


“Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature” (87-8).


Having discussed the issues of environmental, economic, social, and cultural ecology, Pope Francis wants to emphasize the interconnected nature of all these aspects of human existence. What is more, they also connect all of Earth's inhabitants in an increasingly globalized world. So the theme of solidarity comes up again, and with it the theme of the “common good”:


“In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option entails recog­nizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods, but, as I mentioned in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, it demands before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers” (117).


If social justice is at the core of loving our neighbor, then so is environmental justice, which disproportionately impacts the poor as well as future generations -- the most powerless of all in this area. What kind of a planet will we pass on to them?

I have no space to detail all the practical prescriptions and suggestions the pope offers to his readers. But perhaps they can best be summarized in the word “dialog” – continuing dialog among the international community (so let’s strengthen the process agreed upon in the Paris Agreement); but also dialog about local, national and international politics, so as to eradicate the corruption of money and power and to foster a more just economic system that works for all. Politics matter too, but they begin and finally depend on conversations and solidarities at the grassroots. This will necessarily involve robust environmental education, and who is better equipped for this than religious institutions? In the first quote, Pope Francis targets education across the board; in the second, Christians, who need a “conversion” in this area:


“Environmental education should facilitate making the leap towards the transcendent which gives ecological ethics its deepest meaning. It needs educators capable of developing an ethics of ecology, and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care” (154).

“It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (158-9).


This last statement about “ecological conversion” provides an apt transition to our section on the Lausanne Cape Town Commitment.


Evangelical mission: the Lausanne Cape Town Commitment

Founded in 1846, the World Evangelical Alliance is the oldest and most influential of organizations seeking to represent over 600 million evangelicals around the world. And because it is in the “evangelical tradition,” “it looks to the future with vision to accomplish God’s purposes in discipling the nations for Jesus Christ.” But the most influential evangelical organization seeking to coordinate specifically missional concerns is the Lausanne Movement.

The evangelist Billy Graham, whose passion was to “unite all evangelicals in the common task of the total evangelization of the world,” convened a world congress in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. Over 2,400 leaders came from 150 nations to the first International Congress on World Evangelization. Since then, many other international congresses, regional gatherings, and more specialized conferences have taken place. The last great congress was the one held in Cape Town, South Africa in 2010. The Lausanne Movement website calls it “the widest and most ethnically diverse gathering of evangelical Christian leaders ever … carefully assembled to depict an accurate demographic of the global church, giving particular voice to the church in the majority world.”

The result was a broad and rich document, the first part of which serves as a kind of creed entitled, “For the Lord we love,” and the word “love” appears in each of the subsection titles. The last one is “We love the mission of God.” It lays out the mission to which God calls the church in two dimensions. Notice here the word “call,” similar to the Islamic da’wa (my emphasis):


    • God commands us to make known to all nations the truth of God’s revelation and the gospel of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ, calling all people to repentance, faith, baptism and obedient discipleship.
    • God commands us to reflect his own character through compassionate care for the needy, and to demonstrate the values and the power of the kingdom of God in striving for justice and peace and in caring for God’s creation.


The second half of the Commitment is entitled, “For the World we serve: the Cape Town call to action.” The second of six sections is entitled, “Building the peace of Christ in our divided and broken world.” In effect, the theme of reconciliation covers individual redemption, peace in ethnic conflict, Christ for the poor and oppressed (dealing also with slavery and human trafficking, and people with disabilities and with HIV), and then “Christ’s peace for a suffering creation.” This is where we read:


“All human beings are to be stewards of the rich abundance of God’s good creation. We are authorized to exercise godly dominion in using it for the sake of human welfare and needs, for example in farming, fishing, mining, energy generation, engineering, construction, trade, medicine. As we do so, we are also commanded to care for the earth and all its creatures, because the earth belongs to God, not to us. We do this for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ who is the creator, owner, sustainer, redeemer and heir of all creation.”


The three recommendations dovetail nicely with Pope Francis’ Laudate Si, including the first one: “Adopt lifestyles that renounce habits of consumption that are destructive or polluting.” Moreover, as a follow-up to the Cape Town Congress, the Lausanne Movement called a special conference on creation care which was held in Jamaica in 2012 and out of which came the edited book, Creation Care and the Gospel (2016).


Muslims and Christians as trustees of creation

I know from experience that just bringing up the topic of Christian mission is painful for my Muslim readers. It conjures up the image of arrogant and oppressive colonial powers, or more recently the use of relief aid to target the poor and powerless with Christian literature and proselytizing efforts. This is not to ignore the Saudis’ similar use of their petrodollars in Africa and elsewhere, but it is to emphasize that after many Muslim-Christian dialog events over the last forty years or so there is now a recognition on both sides that faithful witness to one’s faith must follow ethical guidelines. The Cape Town Commitment recognizes this:


“We are called to share good news in evangelism, but not to engage in unworthy proselytizing. Evangelism, which includes persuasive rational argument following the example of the Apostle Paul, is ‘to make an honest and open statement of the gospel which leaves the hearers entirely free to make up their own minds about it. We wish to be sensitive to those of other faiths, and we reject any approach that seeks to force conversion on them.’[67] Proselytizing, by contrast, is the attempt to compel others to become ‘one of us’, to ‘accept our religion’, or indeed to ‘join our denomination’.”


So my conclusion to this two-part blog on Pope Francis’ Laudate Si encyclical is the following. The pope has channeled his 13th-century mentor St. Francis of Assisi in a most commendable way for this 21st-century context. He has made amply clear that to follow the mission of Jesus today is to participate in his work of redeeming the whole of creation – people and their social and physical environment. Caring for the poor and dispossessed is also to preach against consumerism, fight causes of pollution and the spewing of greenhouse gases; and it is to increase global solidarity for these cause at the grassroots and international levels.

More than anything, for me this is to reaffirm the mission of this blog – to galvanize common action among Christians and Muslims especially, because they recognize each other respectively as trustees of God’s good creation, for the purpose of fostering justice and love for our common home and all of the people that inhabit it.