Monday, July 25, 2016

General Assembly and the "Muslim Prayer"

Greetings to the Saints of Mission Presbytery! 

I understand that many of you were following the Facebook postings, blogs, and etc. from General Assembly that your commissioners and I generated.  As you know, lots of good stuff happened this year, not the least of which was the final adoption of the Confession of Belhar.  It is going to be such a meaningful tool which will not only encourage and challenge us in our own walk of faith; it will be a gift to each of us as we continue to struggle with issues of race and separation in our day.

You’ll be hearing more from our commissioners at the October Presbytery meeting.  You also need to know that any of them are willing to come meet with you and your congregation to talk about “what happened” from their point of view.  If you need names and contact information for our commissioners, please contact the office and we’ll let you know how to get hold of them.

For me, one of the biggest headlines out of this year’s Assembly is how centrist it was. There was more than once occasion for the body to take a stand on an issue which would have felt divisive at best and outrageous at worst to many Presbyterians. But in each case the Assembly took a more moderate road, and a feeling of consensus emerged.

One totally surprising area of controversy which has arisen since the Assembly is the “Muslim Prayer.”  It is true that on the opening day of the Assembly, a Muslim cleric was invited to greet the Assembly and offer prayer. The same courtesy was offered to other ecumenical delegates, including a Rabbi.

In my opinion, the media (and social media) coverage of this prayer has been over the top and out of proportion to what really occurred. I even read one “news” piece which was highly critical of the prayer. But the photograph they used to represent the prayer during the opening day of the Assembly was actually a picture taken during a Sunday worship service at Second Presbyterian in Little Rock. I know this because my family worshiped there when we lived in Arkansas, and I recognized not only the setting but a number of the people in the picture. It was a false visual representation of the Assembly, and an unfair written article as well.

I’m writing you about this today because a few of you have called or emailed me to find out more about this prayer, contacting me on behalf of upset sessions and/or parishioners.  So I’m assuming that there are more of you that would be interested in knowing what happened, and hearing another perspective. With his permission, I want to share with you a piece written by my friend and colleague Mike Cole, the Executive Presbyter for our next-door neighbor to the east, New Covenant Presbytery. I very much appreciated his perspective on this issue, and I hope you will too. Mike calls this piece, “Too Much Ado about Nothing.” Mike's article follows in bold print below. Give it a look:

Too much has been made of a prayer offered at the beginning of our General Assembly by a Muslim Imam.  The context of the prayer was within a prayer vigil for victims of terror and violence.  A common question among Christians is “where are the moderate Muslims when it comes to denouncing violence?”   This was an opportunity to allow one such Muslim to stand and be counted.  He did and the GA is receiving criticism for it.

One online publication in particular has spotlighted this prayer with comments from a former PCUSA minister, who is no longer serving the congregation that he led out of the PCUSA for ECO.   His ministry is the conversion of Muslims and he regularly blogs on the evils of Islam.  I submitted both the prayer video and the “critic’s” comments to an Islamic scholar in Houston whom I trust implicitly for an explanation.  

At the General Assembly, the Imam began in Arabic with a phrase that is commonly used whenever quoting from the Quran - “I seek refuge with Allah from Satan the accursed.”  This is not a prayer for protection from “evil” Presbyterians, as the “critic” alleges.  The remainder of the prayer in Arabic was: “Allah bless us and bless our families and bless our Lord. Lead us on the straight path – the path of all the prophets: Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Peace be upon them all Amen.

Then the Imam prayed the following in English: “In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful, let us praise the Lord. The creator of the universe, the most merciful, the most compassionate and the Lord of the universe who has created us and made us into nations and tribes, from male and females that we may know each other, not that we might despise each other, or may despise each other. Incline towards peace and justice and trust in God, for the Lord is one that hears and knows everything and the servants of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful, gracious are those who walk in the earth in humility and when bigots and hateful and Islamaphobes address them, they say peace. Peace be upon them and peace be upon Allah.”

Later in the assembly the Stated Clerk offered this apology/explanation:
“During the interfaith prayer service on Saturday in response to the killings in Charleston and Orlando, a prayer was offered that went beyond what had been scripted. It was an offense of the head, not of the heart; it came from one seeking to be authentically gracious, as part of the healing service. Some commissioners found it offensive. When in relationship with people of other faiths, sometimes we can inadvertently be offensive when meaning to be sensitive and ecumenical. It was never the intention of the one offering the prayer to offend any of us. Nevertheless, we offer an apology to all those who were offended.”  In my mind, that ended the matter, until the "critic" picked it up several days later.

I agree with what one of our pastors wrote today, “I do not subscribe to the interpretation that the prayer:  was anti-Jewish or anti-Christian;  was an attempt to convert the assembly; or denied the authority of scripture or of biblical salvation”  This statement lines up with the explanation of the Islamic Scholar I consulted who wrote the following:

“One point of clarification here is that, in Muslim tradition, Jews and Christians are the direct two religions before Islam.  The Quran  refers to both religions as good and worthy of following. Also, it is worth mentioning that the Imam was speaking his own words construed from various verses In Quran. He was trying to show the message of peace as shared by all those sent from God and what we all should have.

The word Allah in Arabic literally means “the One who is worshiped" I.e God in English or Dios in Spanish.   The word prophet in Islamic tradition is (Nabi or Nabee'). It is not what the English term connotes. Rather, in Arabic, It refers to the person who is sent by God with a message to guide humanity. Within that understanding all those mentioned were sent by God to guide us all. The difference is that Muslims revere Jesus as a special creation of God unlike any human while our Christian counterparts believe in him as lord and or the son of God. Even with that main difference, Islam orders us to respect other faiths. We believe that everyone is entitled to choose their faith and belief system.”

My observations are that the prayer refers to God as Allah, which is a common word for God in the Middle East, used even among Jews.  We regularly refer to God by different names - Father, Rock, Redeemer, etc.   That doesn't change God's character when we use a different name for God.  If I were invited to pray at a Muslim assembly and used the name of Jesus, it would not be with the intent of converting them or offending them but simply an expression of how I normally pray.
I would not expect a Muslim to acknowledge Jesus as Lord any more than I would expect a Jew or Buddhist to do so.   From our perspective putting Jesus on the same level as Muhammad is not sufficient.  From the perspective of a Muslim, putting Jesus on the same level as Muhammad is an honor.   I doubt that the Imam thought of it as offensive.  

The bottom line is that this prayer was intended to affirm Presbyterians in faith and stand with us for peace and justice and against violence.   It is a shame that some would choose to twist the intent to be something nefarious and devious.

Mike has given permission for Presbyterians to share this article as we see fit. So feel free to make copies of it for your Sessions, your church newsletter, wherever you think it would be most appropriate and most helpful. And if you’d like to talk more about the topic, give me a call or drop me an email. I’m happy to talk it over with you. 

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