Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Colum #108. First published in the St. Cloud Times online July 2, 2016; in print July 3

If I were a Muslim in St. Cloud, I would be puzzled: “What’s up with these Christians? Do they love us or do they hate us?”

Bishop Donald Kettler, in an April 30 Your Turn, wrote, “I have always believed that the key to greater understanding among different faiths or cultures is getting to know the people — their families, their histories, their traditions, etc. Inevitably, we all learn something valuable from this kind of interaction: We all want to be accepted and respected for who we are.”

This would make me feel safe and welcome.

But what provoked the bishop’s column would scare me.

An April 20 story in the Times, “Anti-Muslim speaking circuit runs through rural Minn.,” focuses on Ron Branstner, who speaks often about the perceived threat posed by Muslim immigrants, but he is certainly not alone. As the article says, “If there’s a hot spot in the state for tensions, it’s been in and around St. Cloud.”

Branstner and others conjure a conspiracy — of which the government, church social-service agencies, politicians and foundations are supposedly a part — to subvert the Constitution with an imposition of Sharia law.

While the argument is couched in political and legal terminology, its grounding is theological.

The most recent public airing of this viewpoint was an appearance May 27 by Usama Dakdok, founder of the Florida-based Straight Way of Grace Ministry, at Granite City Baptist Church in St. Cloud. As the Times learned in a conversation with Dakdok, a Christian who grew up in Egypt (“Critic of Islam to speak in St. Cloud,” May 22), “his message is that to know Islam, one needs to read the Quran, which he said does not teach love or peace. He called Islam a ‘savage cult’ that teaches its followers to kill non-believers.”

Many of the claims that Branstner, Dakdok and others have made about refugee resettlement in this area, about Muslims and taxes and social welfare, and about the threat of Sharia law have been discredited by Times investigation (“Fact-checking debunks some claims about refugees,” Sept. 23, 2015), though that hasn’t slowed proliferation of the allegations.

If I were a Muslim, I would wonder: “When I meet a Christian, is it one who agrees with Bishop Kettler or with Usama Dakdok?  Am I seen as friend or foe?”

I, as a Christian, applaud and affirm Bishop Kettler’s role in the Greater St. Cloud Faith Leaders Group, which is working to build up relationships among Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths in the area. On the basis of decades of experience in ecumenical and interreligious conversation, I agree wholeheartedly when he writes, “the key to greater understanding among different faiths or cultures is getting to know the people.”

But I want to go a step farther than saying that “we all learn something valuable from this kind of interaction.”

I want to face squarely a theological question that gets posed now and then: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Let’s dismiss out of hand the mindless distinction, “We worship God but they worship Allah.”  Allah is simply the Arabic word for God.

The Quran certainly assumes they’re the same God; the quotations from and parallels to the Bible, both Testaments, are numerous. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are linked through Abraham.

You can find blood lust in the Bible as well as in the Quran. And Dakdok’s claim that the Quran “does not teach love or peace” borders on libel.

But the question "Do we worship the same God?" digs deeper still.

And here’s my answer: The God I worship and the God my Muslim friend and fellow columnist Abdul Kulane worships are much more closely related than are the God I worship and the God worshiped by those who speak as Dakdok does. Do Dakdok and I worship the same God, just because we are both baptized? No.

The God of division and exclusion that is revealed when Islam is called a “savage cult” has, as an element of its theological underpinning, a principle that is clearly articulated in a section of the doctrinal statement of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Minnesota​, ​from which​, according to its website, ​the pastor of Granite City Baptist Church received his doctoral degree​.

The section, “Concerning Heresy, Apostasy, and Compromise,” reads in part as follows: “obedient believers and local churches are to practice complete separation from these who deny the faith. The Scripture teaches that we are not to seek to win them to the faith by fellowshipping with them, but rather we are to identify them, rebuke them, and withdraw ourselves from any spiritual communion with them. The principle of separation, as opposed to infiltration or collaboration, is clearly taught.”

A God who promotes “the principle of separation” is far removed from a God who promotes “interacting” and “getting to know other people.”

Christians like me and Muslims like Abdul Kulane are theologically a lot closer to each other than Abdul is to ISIS or I am to Usama Dakdok and those who cheer him on.