To Be a Christian
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels.
On Friday, November 14, Washington National Cathedral welcomed several hundred Muslim worshippers to hold a Muslim prayer service in our sacred space. While in the past Washington National Cathedral has invited Jews to worship at the Cathedral (and Washington Hebrew Congregation offered the Cathedral its sanctuary for Sunday services after the 2011 earthquake), this was the first time Muslims offered their weekly prayers in the cathedral we believe to be a house of prayer for all people.
I could not have been more proud to be affiliated with Washington National Cathedral than I was on Friday. South African Ambassador to the United States, Ebrahim Rasool preached an eloquent sermon, expressing gratitude for the warm welcome extended to Muslim worshippers, lamenting the rise of violent extremism within Islam, and calling upon good people of all faiths to unite in efforts to counter violence and hatred.
“We come to this cathedral with sensitivity and humility," Rasool said, “but keenly aware that this is not the time for platitudes, because mischief is threatening the world. The mischief-makers call themselves by various names, every name seeking to appropriate a part of our identity and heritage. They invade lands, behead journalists, execute civilians and declare war on anyone different to them: whether Muslims who are Shia, Sunni, or democratic; or whether non-Muslims like Christians, Yazidis, or Jews; or anyone else by virtue of being a woman, a westerner, or a secularist. And they do all of this with the seal of the Prophet–on whom be peace–held aloft as if it is for them a seal of approval.”
He went on:
“Extremism is not the antidote to extremism. Extremism labels because it cannot debate. Extremism excludes because it cannot embrace. Extremism is angry because it cannot love. Extremism destroys because it cannot build. Extremism has perfected the art of dying for its cause because it has forgotten how to live for its cause.
The challenge to us today is to reconstitute a middle ground of good people, distinct from all extremisms, but whose very existence threatens extremism. God's methodology to defeat mischief is to inspire good people to make common cause and to be courageous. This is our purpose today."
All at the Cathedral and Diocesan offices have been taken aback by the hundreds of phone calls and letters protesting the prayer service because of terrorist threats by Muslim extremists around the world. I worry that we are at risk in this country of matching extremism with extremism of our own, as we have in our past.
Some Christians have lamented the fact that we welcomed Muslim prayer in a space consecrated for Christian worship, as if to do so were not Christian. I respect their point of view, but do not share it.
Jesus encountered certain rulers of the synagogues who protested his healing of the sick on the Sabbath. Such acts are not a violation of the Sabbath, he told them, but an expression of Sabbath’s intent. “The Sabbath was made for humankind; not humankind for the Sabbath.” In the same way, I believe that to welcome Muslims to pray their prayers in our sacred space is not a violation of our identity as Christians, but a clear expression of our faith and devotion to Jesus. I say that as one who loves Jesus, knows him as our Savior and Lord, believes in the doctrine of the Trinity, and strives each day to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbors as myself.
In his book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, Brian McLaren writes that it is possible to have a strong, vibrant Christian identity and also be kind. By kindness he means far more than mere tolerance, political correctness, or coexistence. We can be strong Christians and also benevolent, hospitable, accepting, “so that the stronger our Christian faith, the more goodwill we will feel and show toward those of other faiths, seeking to understand and appreciate their religion from their point of view.”
That kind of Christianity was what Washington National Cathedral displayed on November 14th--strong and kind.