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Christian ministry within a religiously plural America: the importance of Christian-Muslim relations within theological education.

Sitting at a desk in Dakar, Senegal, after having spent the day with ELCA missionaries who live and work in a Muslim-majority country, Mark Thomsen reflected on why the ELCA has a presence in that country and what form of mission their witness takes.
   Christian mission among Muslim
   people is carried out for the sake of
   reinterpreting for Muslims the Christian
   understanding of the gospel. As
   Christians we feel compelled to share
   that our Trinitarian language, in contrast
   to tritheism, is spoken in order
   to maintain our witness to the unity
   of God. Our incarnational language,
   rather than shirk (associating partners
   with God, for Muslims the greatest sin),
   affirms that Jesus is truly human and
   not some ethereal phantom or ghostly
   spear. Further, our incarnational language
   witnesses to our conviction that
   we have encountered the Word of God
   in the total person and mission of Jesus
   and not just in his prophetic message. (1)

Almost thirty years later, we might reflect again on Christian witness to Muslims, this time not in the Sahel of West Africa, but in the environs of North America. Thomsen's interest in re-defining global mission for the ELCA back in the nineties is still an important project for a church that has latched onto an important but vague theological and missiological mantra as a "missional church." (2) In this article we would like to explore the impetus for such an encounter with Muslims not "over there" in some far-off place where the church can send missionaries who cross geographical and cultural boundaries but "here" in the midst of our own communities, congregations and families. It is not possible to undertake Christian ministry in North America today without recognition of, encounter with, and sensitivity to, a wider variety of non-Christian religious traditions; Islam being one of the most important. The 1980s and 1990s produced a handful of theologians and ecclesiastical leaders who were attentive to interfaith dialogue or encounter with a variety of different religious traditions "over there." However, the training of leaders today requires an approach to ministry that recognizes the reality of persons of other faiths not only in the communities in which we live, but the ministries in which we work, and the families to which we belong.

The 2010 U.S. presidential election highlighted the dramatic demographic changes within the United States, prompting many pundits to note with "concern" the growth of Latino voters, the Black caucus, and the rise of Arab-American blocs. Long before this election, however, Harvard Professor Diana Eck's research on the New Religious America brought to light the amazing ethnic and religious diversity already then fully present within the citizenry of the United States. (3) While it might be tempting to relegate the topic of religious pluralism to an elective course in seminary for those who are of like-minded interfaith specialists, the reality is that all of our ethnic and religious diversity is experienced within reach of a typical middle-class, Anglo Lutheran congregation. Others will certainly be more qualified to comment on the ministerial encounter with Buddhists, Hindus, or Jews in American settings; hence, we will limit ourself to the Christian-Muslim encounter.

Questions about Islam

A pastor walks into a church committee meeting and is handed a hard copy of an email chain by a member with the heading, Muslims demand shar'ia" and says, "Pastor we must do something!"

While innocently shaking hands with parishioners after a rather benign Sunday morning service, one member bluntly asks, "Pastor, is Allah the same as the God of Jesus Christ?"

In meeting an Imam from the mosque across town for the first time he asks flat out, "Please explain to me how the Trinity is nothing less than the worship of Three Gods?"

Each one of these scenarios was a real event. Many leaders in the church have certainly experienced similar encounters. Responses to these questions require some knowledge, skill, and sensitivity. They entail more than simply an arming of oneself with apologetic arguments or retreating into defensive retorts that smack of racism, ethnocentrism, or even hate speech. To be able to respond to the dramatically changing social and religious dynamics in our communities and families; rostered leaders, seminarians, and lay church leaders need to be able to witness to the loving crucified God "molded by humility, vulnerability, and servanthood," as Thomsen has said. (4)

When there is so much for a church leader to do, or for a seminarian to learn and experience, why take up their time with what for some may seem at best as an interesting hobby or elective topic, or at worst may be seen as a liberal agenda that demonstrates the abandonment of the universal claims of the gospel? There are three important aspects of why the study of Christian-Muslim relations is vital for ministry today: theological, sociological, and pastoral.


Islam is one of the major world religions to have appeared after Christianity. Because of this, Islam has posed particular theological problems for the church. As one prominent missionary among Muslims had agonized often, how could God allow a significant portion of the human community who had heard the name Jesus refuse to accept his salvific role and allow them to thrive? (5) This is complicated by the fact that the Qur'an does explicitly recognize Christians and has an important place for Jesus, albeit from within its own theological convictions. Christ's identity is based upon the "Prophetology" of the Islamic scriptural and theological tradition. (6) In addition, the Qur'an explicitly contests the crucifixion of Jesus, the divinity of Jesus, and the Trinity. It is important, then, to understand these Islamic claims not only for reasons of reactive defense or to engage in proselytization, but because they are challenging and thought-provoking questions in their own right. These questions may help us be more effective witnesses to the crucified Christ in whom we profess faith in and of themselves. When we talk about Perichoresis, Begotteness, Personhood, and Procession publicly in our communities, do we actually know what we mean? The Islamic critiques of the Divinity of Jesus and the Doctrine of the Trinity are not specific only to Muslims, but the agnostics and atheists of our society as well. Their questions and critiques are well worth our consideration. Two examples will suffice.

The Trinity and the divinity of Jesus

Surah Nisa' of the Qur'an records this:

People of the Book, do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth: the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God, His word, directed to Mary, a spirit from Him. So, believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a 'Trinity'--stop [this], that is better for you--God is only one God, He is far above having a son (4:171 [Abdel Haleem trans.]).

This passage directly critiques the Christian claim of the Trinity. The theological problem for Muslims is that Christians have claimed more about God than either God or his Prophet 'Isa ever intended. The underlying Islamic concern is for upholding the Unity of God (tawhid); that there is only one God and that this God is sovereign above all else. The Christian profession of the Trinity seems to subvert the sovereignty and unity of God.

Since the seventh century, Christians have been attempting to convince Muslims that we do believe in only one God and not three gods (Tritheism). One Muslim scholar who was unconvinced by Christian scriptural and theological arguments for the Trinity was Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111). In a treatise that has been attributed to him, Al-radd al-jamil li-ilahiyyat 'Isa bi-sarihal-injil [A Fitting Refutation of the Divinity of Jesus], al-Ghazali uses the "High Priestly" prayer of Jesus in John 17 as his starting point. He asks several important questions about this text.

Al-Ghazali points out that if we are to take the priestly prayer of Jesus literally that he is one [wahda] with the Father, then why do Christians not accept that the disciples are ontologically one with Jesus as He is one with the Father in the same manner? Did not Jesus pray that the disciples would be one with him as he was with the Father (17:21)? If the Son is of the same essence as the Father then logically are not the disciples of the same essence [dhat] as Jesus and therefore a part of the Trinity? Naturally, al-Ghazali is pointing out the absurdity of this claim. He argues that Jesus' words of "oneness" should logically be taken metaphorically and not in any ontological manner. (7)

Another critique of the Christian claim of the divinity of Jesus (and by extension of the Trinity) comes from Sura Ikhlas:

Say: God is One, the eternal God. He begot none, nor was He begotten. None is equal to Him (112:1-14 [Abdel Haleem trans.])

While Muslims do believe that Jesus was born from a virgin (3:35-62; 19:22-36), this event does not prove Jesus' divinity, but rather points back to the fact that God as the Creator can create out of nothing as God wills [kun wa faya kun] (19:35). In fact, Muslims have often responded to Christian arguments of divinity that if the birth of Jesus, who was born of a woman but with no earthly Father, is indicative of his divinity, then what of Adam? He was born neither of an earthly Father nor of an earthly Mother. Then logically, Adam would be even more divine than Jesus would.

The point here is that Muslim scholars have taken seriously Christian claims of the Trinity and divinity of Jesus. They do not understand how Christians can make such assertions, and provide very logical arguments in response to our paradoxical claims about God. While these critiques have often been the source of inter-communal hostility, in this author's view such critiques are good opportunities for us to think clearly about our own beliefs. What better way is there than to teach seminarians and public leaders of the church about the major doctrines of the faith, than by posing these clear living Islamic critiques? When asked by Muslim interlocutors about the Trinity and divinity of Jesus, it simply will not do for missional leaders to shrug their shoulders and say, "It is a divine mystery." Muslims will not accept this, nor will the agnostic, atheist, and unchurched folk in our communities who do not understand such orthodox Christian claims either. These challenges provide opportunities to think about issues about how the gospel is articulated and heard in our pluralist America. Such discussions, internal and external, are good teaching moments for us to better reflect on our own faith as well as be more articulate, not only with Muslims but even ourselves. This is what Mark Thomsen did so well.


The second aspect of the importance of engaging Christian-Muslim relations as part of the theological education of future leaders in North America is sociological. Here Diana Eck's work, A New Religious America, is extremely helpful. While some parishioners might claim never to have met a Muslim (and I have had several make such a claim), the reality is that most of our ministries and parishes of the church encounter Muslim Americans and their communities in their own great diversity: be they African-American Muslims, "Immigrant" Muslims, or Anglo converts; be they doctors, lawyers, engineers, or politicians. Muslim organizations, mosques or communities are part of American civil society, from Indiana to San Francisco, St. Paul to South Beach and they might be important partners for the common good in communities.

Because the current atmosphere of Islamophobia continues to look upon all Muslims as a threat or at least a potential threat to Western society (and to American values in particular) it is vitally important that public leaders take clear stands against prejudice, racism, hate crimes, and fear that will ultimately lead to scapegoating whole communities. (8) A powerful example of just such courageous acts occurred in 2013, when Rabbis for Human Rights--North America and Sojourners in New York City, publicly demonstrated against the anti-Islam posters organized by Pam Geller that appeared on the New York subway system. (9) In October 2014 the Religious Leaders Council of Philadelphia, an interfaith forum of over 30 different religious communities in the Philadelphia metro area published a unified statement denouncing the hate speech of such public ads.

Unfortunately, Lutherans, especially those of German descent, know all too well what happens when whole groups of people are labeled by a society as a danger or a threat. Many congregational members have told stories at coffee hours about relatives and friends who stayed back in Nazi Germany or those who could not get out. The strong commitments to Jewish-Lutheran relationships in North American have grown not only from our own communal guilt over Luther's anti-Semitic tracts, but also from our repentance of the reality of ghastly human sin. While incomparable to the horrors of the Holocaust, a generation before World War II German Americans felt the brunt of harsh accusations of being un-American in violent anti-German crackdowns after the passage of the Espionage Act of 1917. Germans were charged with being spies for the Kaiser and being "un-American." (10) With these experiences in our own past, what will a congregation do when an African-American store front mosque a half mile from the church is vandalized by graffiti sprayed over its facade? What about the Pakistani immigrant mosque that has its windows blown out one night by an angry drunk man? How will the missional leader respond?

A recent study by the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, engaged in a survey of 4,000 Episcopal church clergy and 1,700 of its own VTS alumni about their personal and communal engagement with Islam and other faiths. (11) The research demonstrated two primary reasons why their Episcopal church leaders and alumni participated in relationships with other religious communities, or provided educational opportunities about other religious traditions for their congregations. The first reason was the leader's previous educational opportunities with other religions. Ninety percent of those who offered educational forums on another religious tradition in their congregations "had previous education in that religion" in their training. The report states: "an Episcopal church leader's education in other faiths is almost a pre-requisite for education in our parishes about other religions." (12)

The second reason was proximity. The VTS study found that most Episcopal church leaders engaged in some form of interreligious education with other religious institutions that were within five miles from their own congregations. However, 65 percent of the Episcopal congregations in the survey were more than five miles away from the local mosque, negatively affecting interaction. (13) In other words, if there was not a mosque in close proximity, the congregation would not engage with a mosque or Islamic center. This poses a number of challenges for the ELCA.

If we look at the 2011 Pew Research Study on Muslims in America, we note that many American Muslims are either African-American or immigrants from South Asia who have migrated to the U. S. for reasons of economic livelihood in the last twenty years. (14) If we compare this with the demographics of the ELCA, which is still predominantly Anglo and middle class, we can easily speculate that ELCA congregations will be located in areas that are very far removed (geographically and economically) from a mosque or Islamic center. Unless a congregation is intentional about engaging with a Muslim community, which is usually racially, ethnically, and culturally different from its own origins, there is a very slim chance that any form of education or relationship will happen. Given that the largest single ethnic community of U.S. Muslims is African-American, we must also acknowledge that racial tensions and sensitivities are part of the Christian-Muslim relationship in America. Because the majority of Americans still share negative feelings and views about Muslims, these perceptions will not change, but will be exacerbated with the ongoing problems in the Middle East and central Asia. (15)

Church leaders involved in any social ministry organization or those within Word and Service ministries have, and undoubtedly will, engage American Muslim communities as participants, co-sponsors, or supporters of their particular social ministries. Those who serve in congregations or Word and Sacrament ministries have, and undoubtedly will, engage Muslim communities as part of civic associations. How will public leaders navigate these interfaith relationships within the civic space? These interactions are not just theological and spiritual matters. It is not only about seeking esoteric interfaith dialogue, whatever form that may be. Rather, these relationships will more than likely be intercultural, interethnic, interracial, and across economic gaps. How will missional leaders help their own communities engage those who are very different, not only for the sake of proclaiming the gospel, but also living out the gospel in "humility, vulnerability, and servanthood"? The best chance for any positive interaction will be from those leaders that have engaged in some form of previous intercultural, interfaith educational opportunities. (16)

Of course, some will ask about Muslim extremists, such as those being recruited by jihadist groups. How are we to guard against potential violence? Certainly, extremist religious violence should be addressed in our society like any other violent crime. (Lutherans have always been good at recognizing the first use of the law as necessary for civil order.) While the New York City police secret surveillance program of Muslims resulted in a prominent debate about the violation of civil rights (and certainly there are others), most Muslim communities around the country are actively involved with law enforcement at some level in subverting crime. (17) Islamophobia, however, assumes that American Muslims are NOT interested in the well-being of their own local communities and undermining American values. Pastoral encounters with local Muslim communities are an important sustainable response to such assumptions, and provide opportunities for a robust civil society, what Putnam and Campbell call "bridging." (18)


As important as the theological and sociological aspects of Christian-Muslim relations are, the third is the most practical. In her book 'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America, Naomi Schaeffer Riley notes that in 1988 15 percent of U.S. homes were composed of spouses from different faith traditions. In 2006, the percentage rose to 25 percent. Riley comments that according to the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 that "27 percent of Jews, 23 percent of Catholics, 39 percent of Buddhists, 18 percent of Baptists, 21 percent of Muslims and 12 percent of Mormons were then married to a spouse with a different religious identification." (19) Contrary to previously accepted assumptions that most people marry within communal and religious boundaries, Riley remarks that according to the National Study of Youth and Religion that less than 25 percent of those in the 18-23 age bracket believe that "it's important to marry someone of the same faith." (20) Once our son or daughter marries a Muslim, it is no longer about "them."

Because of the multi-faith, multiethnic shape of American society, our church leaders will face pastoral questions from parishioners, co-workers, or clients in social ministry organizations. These interfaith encounters within our own families or communities do not only entail theological or sociological issues, but practical ones relating to the daily life, such as; "Pastor, my daughter is in love with a Muslim. What do I do?" "Pastor, there are a few people waiting for a homeless meal who want to know if we can provide halal food."

What will you do if a child in your Sunday school brings their friend, Ahmad who is an unaccompanied minor to vacation Bible school? How will Ahmed be welcomed or treated? You are asked to offer a table prayer at an Iftar of a member of your congregation who is in an interfaith family. Will you pray in the name of the Triune God? The local hospital calls and indicates that there is a Muslim woman who has requested prayers before her impending death. In the accepted practice and policies of hospital chaplaincies, what manner of prayer will you offer at her death? God forbid, there is a shooting in front of the local mosque. Whom do you contact?

People of other faiths are engaged in relationships with members of our congregations and ministries on any number of levels. They may be compatriots and partners working on any number of causes within our local communities, or they may be the targets of hate speech, racism, or violence. While our rostered leaders may respond to these events "by the seat of their pants," how much better would it be if our missional leaders had been prepared to respond to such interfaith encounters grounded in the loving crucified God "molded by humility, vulnerability, and servanthood"?


Looking back over his years as the Director of DGM, Mark Thomsen reflected on Christian-Muslim relationships in Senegal and the role of the ELCA mission there. Almost thirty years later his thinking is as vital for us as ever. The ideas and lessons that he gleaned from those who have crossed geographic and cultural boundaries "over there" are as valid for a missional church in North America that locates itself in a multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, and multi-religious nation "here." We hope that our public leaders would have had the opportunity to think through thoughtful responses that might reflect the presence of the crucified Christ long before they actually face such events and questions. What form and shape will "cruciformed" and faithful ministry take in such an interfaith American context?

(1.) Mark W. Thomsen, "Christian Mission within the Muslim World," Word & World vol. XVI, No. 2 (Spring 1996), 196-197.

(2.) Thomsen was the driving force behind a "Focus on Islam" in the ELCA that grew from his previous commitments in the American Lutheran Church (ALC). He organized and edited God and Jesus: Theological reflections for Christian-Muslim Dialog (Minneapolis: DWMIC: ALC, 1986) and then developed the ELCA "Commitments for Mission in the 1990s" found in Mark W. Thomsen, The Word and the Way of the Cross: Christian Witness Among Muslim and Buddhist People (Chicago: Division for Global Mission, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1993), 14-19, 111-125. See also David D. Grafton, Piety, Politics and Power: Lutherans Encountering Islam in the Middle East (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications, 2009), 225-230.

(3.) Diana Eck, A New Religious America: How a "Christian country" has now become the world's most religiously diverse nation (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001).

(4.) Thomsen, 196.

(5.) See W.H.T. Gairdner, The Reproach of Islam (London: Church Missionary Society, 1909 2d ed., rev.), 4-5.

(6.) See Sidney H. Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008).

(7.) Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Al-radd al-jamil li-ilahiyyat 'Isa bi-sarihal-injil (Paris: Leroux, 1939), 7-8. Further helpful responses to this issue can be found in Mark N. Swanson, "The Trinity in Christian-Muslim Conversation," Dialog: A Journal of Theology AG, no. 3 (Fall 2005), 256-263.

(8.) The term "Islamophobia" was coined by the British organization Runnymede Trust in its 2000 study, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain: The Parekh Report (London: Profile Books Ltd., 2000) ( projects/meb/ report.html) [accessed June 13, 2014). See also The Muslim Public Affairs Council, Islamophobia ( [accessed June 13,2014].

(9.) 2013/01/09/anti-muslim-ads-newyork-city-subway-american-freedom- defense-initiative_n_2438881.html (accessed 18 February 2014).

(10.) See David D. Grafton, "German Lutherans and Assimilation: Lessons in the Current Atmosphere of Islamophobia," The Journal of Lutheran Ethics (May/June 2011) [ Social-Issues/Journal-of-Lutheran-Ethics/ Issues/May-June-2011/ German-Lutheransand-Assimilation.aspx#_ednref1].

(11.) See David T. Gortner, Katherien Wood, and J. Barney Hawkins IV, "Faithful Christians, Faithful Neighbors: How do Episcopal parishes relate to other faiths--especially Islam?" Virginia Theological Seminary Journal (December 2013): 57-66. The authors indicate a near 20 percent response rate from alumni (59).

(12.) Ibid., 61.

(13.) Ibid., 60.

(14.) The Pew Research Center, Muslims in America: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream (2007), 13 ( muslim-americans-middle-class-and-mostly-mainstream/) (accessed June 16, 2014).

(15.) Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, Religious Perceptions in America: With an In-Depth Analysis of U.S. Attitudes Towards Muslims and Islam (Dubai, United Arab Emirates: Gallup, Inc., 2009), 8.

(16.) The ELCA Multicultural Ministries Handbook, Talking as Christians Cross-Culturally ( Evangelism-Talk_Together_as_Christians_ Cross-Culturally.html) provides helpful guidelines for engaging other communities of different ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds and can be used for interfaith engagement as well.

(17.) For example see Jaweed Kaleem, "Muslims Rally In Support Of NYPD Mosque Surveillance Program," Huffington Post February 24, 2012, muslimsrally-nypd-mosque-surveillance_n_1321363.html) (accessed June 16, 2014).

(18.) Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 526-534.

(19.) Naomi Schaefer Riley, 'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 6. See also

(20.) Naomi Schaefer Riley, "Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they're failing fast too," 7he Washington Post Sunday, June 6, 2010, (http://www.washingtonpost. com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/04/ AR2010060402011.html)] [accessed 26 February 2014]. See

David D. Grafton

Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia
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Author:Grafton, David D.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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