NEW YORK — “I agree with about 90% of what you said,” Chuck Colson told me, shaking my hand as I stepped off the stage at the Q Conference,
I confess to being shocked.
But maybe not as shocked as the audience of 500 Evangelical Christians felt when the organizer of Q, a young visionary named Gabe Lyons of the Fermi Project, said “The next person I’d like to bring to stage is a Muslim, Eboo Patel.”
Q is a gathering of Evangelical Christians dedicated to exploring “the church’s role in positively engaging culture”.
It is a clear that a segment – maybe even the vanguard – of the Evangelical movement is aware that “culture” includes people who are not Christian, and the notion of “positive contribution” is being broadened beyond conversion efforts.
When I got on stage, I asked a simple question: “Am I, a Muslim, part of that Beloved Community? Are the 4 + billion people on Earth who are not Christians part of the Beloved Community?”
I went through the litany of relationships King had with people of different faiths. Learning from Gandhi, a Hindu (it was a cosmic friendship – they never met in person); marching in Selma with Heschel, a Jew; nominating Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist, for the Nobel Peace Prize. Did these respectful interfaith relationships make King less of a Christian?
My message: Muslims and Christians might not fully agree on worldview, but we share a world. We do not have the same understanding of theology, but we have a similar view of humanity.
I spoke about my close friendship with Evangelical Christians through the Interfaith Youth Core. My colleague, April Kunze, who was told as a Christian leader at Carleton College that helping to rebuild a mosque destroyed by racist arson was “unChristian”. She left the Church at that point (or, more accurately, was asked to leave), unable to reconcile her desire to help others regardless of faith with the type of religion being professed by the people who called themselves Christian on her campus.
April was at home at Q. It was a place where she could bring her full mind, body and soul. Connect her faith to the world. Be friends with a Muslim. Ask hard questions openly. Disagree with people.
I felt at home too. The applause after my talk was loud and genuine – an applause not of full agreement (I never asked for it), but of (I believe) deep appreciation. Dozens of people thanked me for coming, saying that they knew it was a risk on my part. I told them I felt they had taken a greater risk by inviting me. Several excitedly told me about the interfaith projects they were working on – to address poverty, to care for the environment.
After my main session talk, nearly 200 people filed in to a smaller session with me for a Q and A. The questions were intelligent, respectful, probing. What books should Christians read about Islam (the best introduction, in my view, Reza Aslan’s No god but God)? What is the relationship between the Nation of Islam and “mainstream” practice? What is the role of Sharia law in Islam? And most emphatically – what can Christians and Muslims, along with people of other faiths and no faith at all, do together to improve the world we live in?
If all you do is watch television sound bites and read alarmist books, it’s easy to believe that Evangelical Christianity is only about smug, self-absorbed triumphalism. But as Susan Sontag once said, “Whatever is happening, something else is always going on.”
And here is what that is: a self-reflective renewal movement, grounded in a particular interpretation of the Gospel, full of hope and love, ready to engage the world.
And even though it is not my tradition and my community, I believe deeply that this type of Evangelical Christianity is one of the most positive forces on Earth.