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Islamic Society of North America
Workshop on “A Common Word”

July 4, 2009 

Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos
Sr. Program Director for Faith & Order and Interfaith Relations
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA
 

Thank you, and Salaam ‘Alaykum!  

It is a pleasure to be here with you today, to speak on this important topic, “A Common Word Between Us and You” and its implications for work together, or, as it says in the letter itself for “compet[ing] in good works.”  It is also an honor to be here with these other panelists and colleagues. 

When “A Common Word” was first issued, it generated a great amount of goodwill among the Christian leaders and churches to whom it was addressed.  The next few weeks and months saw a great number of positive responses.  To be sure, there were a few dissident Christian voices among them, but they were to be expected, and they were mostly ignored by fellow Christians.  In my estimation, however, the initial responses, while positive, were by and large only polite and politically correct (though some responses that came out later were to be quite substantive).   

The National Council of Churches, therefore, recognizing the theological depth within the letter and sensing the authors’ desire to receive responses also of theological depth, embarked upon a one-year study of the document so as to craft an appropriate response.  (I invite you to see our response on www.ncccusa.org, or the Common Word website, www.acommonword.com.)   In our minds, the letter had to be ecclesial – something that the churches could recognize as having authority within their respective traditions.  It had to be ecumenical – it was important to respond together as the Christian community and not only as separate parts within that community, and not incidentally, given geopolitical circumstances, as the Christian community in the United States.  And it had to be theological – since at the basis of entering into any interfaith relationship is the respective theological well from which we each drink.   

It is on this last point that I want to concentrate my remarks.  It was important for the National Council of Churches to affirm that we responded to your outstretched arms with equally outstretched arms based on our understanding and experience of God.  In other words, while we agreed that the two great commandments, the love of the One God and the love of neighbor, were central to our two faiths, and to Judaism as well, and thus a basis on which to work together for peace, our understanding of the One God as the Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit – informed our understanding of the human relationship to which the Muslim letter called us.  We also felt it was important to assert our understanding of Jesus Christ – an honored prophet to Muslims, but the savior of the world to Christians – as the one who brought about the fullness of such relationship.  And we needed to affirm our understanding of the Spirit as the one who quickens the human impulse to such relationship. 

I must confess that a discussion did ensue among us whether it was wise to answer the letter with such strong theological content.  But most of us agreed that not to do so would be disingenuous, and in fact would dishonor the theological effort evidenced in the letter itself.  Not incidentally, we had heard from some of our international partners that indeed the Muslims at the center of this initiative were eager for the conversation to move to theology, since without it a true dialogue could not go very far. 

I must say, this was borne out in subsequent exchanges, most notably for me at the Yale conference hosted by Miroslav Volf, who I’m sorry to hear couldn’t be with us today.  Since I was to be here to speak at the inaugural session of this conference yesterday, I guess I’m his replacement of sorts – as if Professor Volf could have a replacement! – but I’m glad to do so because it was at his conference that I heard the strongest of affirmations that the “A Common Word” conversation needed to delve into the theological realm. 

At one of the sessions, a noted Muslim scholar from another country – and I’m sorry I didn’t note at the time his name or affiliation – stated something like, “the Trinity we hear about today is not the same as the Trinity as explained to the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) and reacted to by him in the Qur’an.”  What he was saying in his presentation was, while Muslims of course weren’t about to accept a Trinitarian explanation of the One God, their contemporary understanding of the Trinity didn’t cause the same kind of immediate reaction because, after centuries of theological development and articulation on the Christian side and dialogue between the Muslim and Christian sides, they could understand in new ways their Christian counterparts’ beliefs.  This, my friends, is an example of theology paving the way for better relationship.   

To flip the learning experience to the other side, something I am urging my fellow Orthodox Christians to do is to more intentionally join in with our ecumenical brothers and sisters into Muslim-Christian dialogue, so that the centuries of living side-by-side in the Middle East can help inform the overall Christian understanding of Islam.  One important way this can most help Muslim-Christian engagement is in the healing of memories of painful experiences that both of our communities have experienced at the hands of one another in centuries past.  Historical memories of Muslim conquests and Christian crusades centuries ago still have a way of intruding into the 21st century world.  Living side-by-side for generations can contribute greatly to the healing of such painful memories.   

In short, what I am saying is that when we better understand each other, when we better understand what motivates one another, we can then better work together on the things that turn common words into common deeds.  And this is what this workshop is seeking to do. 

You’ll be interested to know that the National Council of Churches has been involved in Muslim-Christian relations for some three decades.  Of course, this became much more intentional after 9/11, when our common voice was needed to battle both hate crimes against Muslims in this country and extremism abroad.  And last year, in partnership with ISNA, ICNA, and other Islamic groups, the member churches of the National Council of Churches began the National Muslim-Christian Initiative, an effort aimed at regularizing our partnership to include projects to foster reconciliation and better understanding locally and nationally.  (Dr. Sayyid Syeed is a part of this initiative.)   

This initiative led to the NCC’s renunciation of the film Obsession late last year.  It is leading to a proposed joint project to start local interfaith, Muslim-Christian conversations precisely about “A Common Word,” the NCC response, and related issues through the production of a study guide, which will hopefully be fully funded and ready for distribution to churches and mosques by early next year.  And it will likely lead to more joint advocacy on a host of justice issues that both of our communities confront:  poverty, Middle East peace, global warming, torture, and so on. 

My friends, there is indeed a lot of work to do.  And as asserted in “A Common Word,” there are common beliefs upon which to ground this work.  It will not be easy, for a host of reasons.  But it is nonetheless essential.   

Several years ago, when Samuel Huntington’s thesis on a “clash of civilizations” was being debated around the US and around the world, many discounted the theory and stated that religions and cultures could live peaceably together.  But these statements needed to be proved.  The relationships that have been formed in the years since then – interfaith groups, Muslim-Christian dialogues, Abrahamic initiatives among Jews, Christians and Muslims, etc. – have all lent themselves to the needed proof.   

But more is still needed.  Even as we speak here together in the peaceful confines of this convention center in Washington, DC, there are forces at work in the US and around the world seeking to prove through their hateful rhetoric and violent actions that peace cannot be achieved between religions and cultures.  Can we sit idly by and let this happen?  Of course not.   

This is why we are here.  And this is why, In sha’Allah, we will leave this place committed to even more collaboration in the name of peace. 

Thank you.


NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228 (office), 646-853-4212 (cell) , pjenks@ncccusa.org

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