On a shelf at home I have a copy of “Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road,” the story of the Syrian-born writer Mazhar Mallouhi. As a young man who grew up in a Muslim family he had a profound spiritual hunger, read widely, learned of Jesus in the bible, and became a follower of Christ while remaining loyal to his Muslim culture.
His novels are read by millions in the Middle East. Through them he has sought to bridge misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians.
In the book is a photo of him in the famous Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo, sitting with a group of Muslims as they read the Gospels together. It is his custom to say, “I am a follower of Christ. Here is what Jesus said. Tell me honestly, do you think I am living as Jesus said I should?”
I thought of Mallouhi’s question during the heated dispute over the location of a Muslim mosque and community center near Ground Zero in New York. Among the voices being raised -- some harsh with anger, some deep with indignation about “rights” -- I wonder if the missing voice is that of Jesus?
If I were a Muslim I might want to claim rights, but might also want my leaders to consider whether another location would work and help to heal some deep hurts. But I am not a Muslim. Those issues are for the Muslim community to decide.
What I need to ask is: what does Jesus say to us who say we follow him?
Suppose we, like Mallouhi, sat down with some Muslims in the new community center, and read with them some of the words of Jesus, words like “Do good to those who hate you.” That could apply to radical terrorists who want to blow us up. So how can it not apply to Muslim neighbors who are living among us?
Many years ago my late friend J. Christy Wilson was pastor of the first ever Christian church in Kabul, Afghanistan. Through the good offices of President Eisenhower permission was granted to build the church, attended by Christian expatriates.
The time came when the Afghan authorities revoked permission and announced they would knock the church down. When the bulldozers arrived what did the Christ followers there do? They served tea to the workers who were destroying their church building!
They were living out a central tenet of our Christian faith – that we are “saved by grace” -- God’s grace freely given in Jesus Christ -- and they showed grace.
How can we do that? I hope the churches and the Christ followers in New York can figure it out. Perhaps delivering a cool drink to the workers who will build the center? Paul went so far as to write (and this was about enemies, not neighbors) “If they are thirsty, give them something to drink” (Romans 12:20).
Does this mean we naively accept real evil? Not at all. I understand the rage that 9/11 stirred. Force is often needed to protect the innocent. But ultimately I have to follow Jesus and his follower Paul in the baffling reality of Paul’s admonition to “Overcome evil with good.”
What does the love of Christ compel me to do? Perhaps whether in New York or Charlotte to extend a little more grace -- actually a whole lot more. Wouldn’t that be the best witness we could make?
Leighton Ford is President of Leighton Ford Ministries, which focuses on raising up younger leaders to spread the message of Christ worldwide. He is author, most recently, of “The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things” (InterVarsity).