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A Muslim Encounter in Kenya: 3 Principles for Multi-faith Engagement

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A Muslim Encounter in Kenya: 3 Principles for Multi-faith Engagement

Joel B. Groat

Nairobi airport, March 2019. The Muslim cleric standing behind me in the immigration line without warning put his crossed arms on my shoulders and leaned on me with his full weight. For the 20 minutes prior he had repeatedly tried to edge me out of my place in a very crowded and slow-moving immigration line. I’m no stranger to foreign travel or cultures, and I am seldom bothered by zero personal space, so I amiably and firmly resisted his jostling attempts to get by me until the narrowing line and a set of metal gates created a single file line. Once it was clear he was not going to get by, he settled in behind me, and with a wry smile graciously motioned me forward with the wave of his hand saying, “You go on, you are my elder brother.” I smiled back, said “Thank you” and continued moving my hand luggage ahead of me as the line inched forward. It was at this point I suddenly felt him leaning on my shoulders, his bearded face brushing my neck.

Believe me, my calm, friendly exterior masked more than a little internal apprehension.  After all this was Nairobi, Kenya, where just a few months earlier Islamic terrorists blew up a car and attacked the DusitD2 hotel complex, leaving more than 20 people dead. I had been just a couple of miles away in downtown Nairobi eating lunch with friends when it happened.  Now I was in a crowded, cement room, filled with over 200 mzungus (Kiswahili for ‘white foreigner’) many of us who had watched this particular forty-something Muslim cleric leave his other 8-10 fellow clerics on the other side of the room and join our immigration line directly behind me. His long flowing robes could be concealing any number of things, and apart from his attempts to edge his way ahead of me in line, he made no attempt to interact with other people in line, but did periodically say things in Arabic to the rest of his group across the room.

Now, after not being able to get by me, he was leaning on me, heavily. It was the acid test for my approach to someone of a faith that was foreign, even potentially hostile to my own.

In such circumstances one gets to see how we really view people of other cultures and religious traditions. What will characterize our engagement? Will it be fear, suspicion, hostility, cool aloofness? Or openness, trust, kindness and mutual respect, even dialogue?

I turned slightly without dislodging him, smiled and said over my shoulder, “I’ve got you, you can lean on me.” He smiled and replied, “Thank you, brother.” 

Less than a minute later he straightened up and I turned again to smile at him. I replied to his query on what I was doing in Kenya with “I’m here teaching Christian pastors about the Injil of Isa (Gospel of Jesus) so they can understand it better and be better leaders.” He brightened visibly at that and told me he was also a teacher, coming to Kenya to teach the Quran to children. We spoke briefly of Jesus, Islam’s second prophet, and the fact that he was unique for never having died. The people around us visibly relaxed at our warm and cordial interaction. In minutes we waved goodbye as we moved to our separate immigration lines, his whole party of clerics joining him. The whole lot of them were waved through in a matter of minutes. My only regret was that I forgot to request a selfie. 

Three Principles and Four Core Truths

As I reflected on this incident, I realized my approach to multi-faith engagement is based on three principles. 

  1. Connect relationally before attempting to connect theologically.
  2. Connect spiritually with divine, redemptive curiosity
  3. Share personally and invitationally rather than abstractly and confrontationally. 

At the heart of these principles are four core truths which apply equally to people whether they be a Muslim cleric, an atheistic/agnostic brother-in-law, or a friend of over 20 years who remains staunchly Mormon.

Core truth 1. All people are first and foremost image of God.

This is the central defining characteristic of all of us. This is what gives us worth and value and makes us worthy of respect, compassion, kindness and love. Because we are all equally image of God, there will always be more that unites us than separates us.  What we share in common far outweighs the things that make us different. When I love and care for people for who they are and where they are, then I love and honor the God who made them. This is true whether they believe in Him or not, or whether they believe like me or not.

Core truth 2. All of us are equally fallen, and therefore deeply flawed and broken.  

We hurt and are hurt. This fallenness is the primary contributor to our problems, dissension, hatred and wars. However, I must see the pervasiveness of sin in myself first and foremost. When I do, I have the potential for moving toward greater solidarity with others, despite the brokenness I see and experience in them.

Core truth 3. I am not responsible to change other people and I am powerless to do so.

When I embrace this core truth, two things happen.  First, I set aside my tendencies to rush to judgment or to manipulate or pressure other people to change. Secondly, I am free to experience and love people for who they are, and where they are. Right now. In this moment. In these circumstances. Regardless of whether they ever change or not. 

Core truth 4. The power of life transformation is found in the gospel of Jesus and every person has the same potential to be transformed by it.

This truth energizes me to be an agent of hope. I am intentional with my caring in order to create a space where love, acceptance, and kindness are all experienced the way God intended - free of price tags and not contingent on a person’s performance. I want others to experience the love of God so they can be transformed by the gospel of Jesus.

People Should Not Be Threats or Projects

With these core truths in place, a person is neither a threat nor a project.  They are a fellow human image-bearer.  I interact with them based on what we have in common first, and what we have distinct from one another second. If in the process of our relationship, there is an opportunity to explore our differences in beliefs then I do so with a desire to share the good I’ve found rather than to drive out something harmful or wrong in them. I invite them to experience the best of what I have in Jesus Christ, and I don’t shy away from exploring what they consider the best of what their spirituality has given them. When the relationship is built on this mutual trust, respect, and sharing, rather than on suspicion, shaming, or attacking, we both benefit from the relationship. That relationship in turn mirrors the relationship God desires to have with each of us.

Religious Differences are Real and Important

Taking a relational approach does not negate the significance and seriousness of religious differences. When we fail to take these into account two things happen.

First, we don’t see the whole person and we risk missing their unique worldview perspectives, which can lead to wrongly assuming they share ours.  Misunderstanding can lead to mistrust, and mistrust to division and even enmity.

Secondly, we potentially miss the full impact of the brokenness on their lives and relationships. This brokenness is fed and even amplified by their religious or spiritual grid.

However, holding to an exclusivist view of Christianity should not lead to negative approaches and prejudice toward those in other religions.  It should lead to the exact opposite. If we believe the Jesus of biblical Christianity is the only way, truth, and life for all people, this should—and this is a big should—move me to employ the core truths outlined above. When I do, I’ll employ an invitational, non-pressure, non-judgmental style of relating. This frees and motivates me to love, care, and accept people for who they are and where they are. I do this precisely because I see the potential danger and harm they are exposed to by their accepted religious system; a system that is keeping them from the spiritual and relational flourishing available only in Jesus.  It is the kindness of God that leads to repentance, and it is my kindness and compassion that will lead them to my God, much more so than will my judgment, criticism, or condemnation.

In any given moment the way I interact with someone of another faith should image and share Jesus. Like with the Muslim cleric, I am free to extend trust, friendship, kindness, and faith as the moment allows, free from the pressure to battle, or win, or convert, or attack.

While not unaware of very real differences that can deter dialogue (see my article on these differences here), I trust that what unites us as image-bearers will open doors for sharing about the things that make us different. In the end, I rest knowing that any fruit of that encounter is the work and responsibility of God, not me.