Wednesday, September 14, 2011

´╗┐Heather Mercer on Personalizing Relations with Muslims

Heather Mercer with Kurdish Woman
(Image from Christianity Today)

Ten years ago, ´╗┐Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry were Christian social workers assisting Afghans through Shelter Now, a housing outreach organization, and had been arrested by the Taliban, ostensibly for proselytizing among Muslims. The charges were probably accurate, in a general sense -- though the two did not explicitly attempt to convert Muslims -- for they believed that living for Christ would draw Muslims to Jesus. Both Heather and Dayna were threatened with capital punishment, but I had the impression from the news reports that the Taliban weren't sure what to do with them. Eventually, they were rescued by anti-Taliban forces as Nato's intervention overthrew the Islamist government in the aftermath to 9/11.

According to Timothy C. Morgan, "How Heather Mercer's Hostage Stint Turned into Global Hope," Christianity Today (September 12, 2011), Heather relocated to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2003 and has continued relief work among Muslims. Her experiences seem to indicate that despite the clash of civilizations, cordial relations can be forged across cultural fault lines. Individual Muslims seem to respond well to personalized religious overtures, as we see from the following interview conducted by Morgan:
What can American Christians do to better understand Muslims?

Muslims are people just like us. They have the same desires, the same ambitions. They want to raise their family to be healthy, happy, and whole. The first point is bringing a human face to Muslims. Many Muslims are god-fearing people. They believe in a monotheistic God. They want to experience the promise of eternal life. But they have been handed a religious system and tradition that does not allow them to know the God we know.

Muslims come to know Christ through an authentic relationship with a follower of Jesus, through reading the Scripture in their language, and through having a personal encounter with Christ -- through a dream, or a vision, or through supernatural healing.

Evangelicals in this country can take their experience with Christ and share that with their Muslim neighbors. For the most part, Muslims are very open to that. They love relationship; everything rides on the spirit of hospitality. They love prayer. Engage them on those levels.

Do you believe that relations between Christians and Muslims are improving?

I don't think we're as far as we need to be. There are 1 billion Muslims around the world and 88 percent of them have never met a follower of Jesus. The church needs to rise up with love and humility, and have a willingness to lay its life down for the Muslim world.

Where should a Christian leader start?

It can feel very intimidating. Start a conversation with a Muslim. Find out what they believe. Talk to them. Understand their life. Ask questions. Try to understand their worldview. Get training. In this country, helping to train the American church to reach Muslim neighbors is an organization called Crescent Project.

Another step is pray like crazy. Start a prayer ministry at the church praying for the Islamic world. Visit the local imam and ask him for dialogue. I've never once had a Muslim deny prayer in the name of Jesus. I always ask them, "May I pray for you in Jesus' name?" I want them to know who it is I worship. It's not an easy assignment. But it's a worthy one. If God can use a 20-year-old, blonde, blue eyed, single American girl then he can use anybody.
Heather is no longer just 20, of course. A decade has passed, and she has undoubtedly learned a great deal since 2001. What I find interesting about her remarks is the statement that Muslims "love relationship; everything rides on the spirit of hospitality." That suggests to me that everything is personalized for Muslims. They take nearly everything personally, which might also explain their tendency to easily take offense at perceived slights. Or at real insults.

This tendency toward offense, the personalized coin's other side, doesn't work well in the West, where many Muslims are migrating these days -- that old clash of civilizations again -- for the West is largely based not on personal relations but on rational-legal ones. Evangelicals, however, offer friendship and helpful assistance based on relationships patterned after the personal relationship that they believe themselves to have with Jesus, and they offer Muslims the possibility of enjoying this same divine relationship. Muslims often find that combination irresistable.

I, too, have found Muslims to be very friendly on a personal level, though I've also learned that I have to be careful in what I say, for their honor compels them to an affronted defense of Islam, especially among Arab Muslims.

Heather's emphasis upon friendship with Muslims is a significant insight, but the West expects more of individuals than personalized relations, and a rational-legal system can't work without ignoring personal connections, so the larger problem remains.

Heather and Dayna, by the way, are Baylor alumni, which partly explains my interest in their story.

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At 6:13 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

As usual, your stories (not the same ones covered by the media here), insights, and comments are very interesting.

Just a brief corollary about They take nearly everything personally. Maybe "they" are not, strictly, Muslims, as rather what I would call a "Mediterranean mood," though the geographic indication is not to be taken literally. Think of the Christian society described by Dante, or the Greek heathen one by Homer, "Achilles' wrath"...

At 7:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I suppose that it's the case anywhere one finds a shame-and-honor culture.

The Medieval West was a different place and culture than now . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:11 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

The Medieval West was a different place and culture than now

After reading Dante carefully some dozens of times, as well as many other Medieval sources, I maintain that, in Italy at least, society in its main dynamics is now exactly the same as then.

However, it suffices to have a look (simply the streets, the houses...) at such as-well-Mediterranean countries as France, Spain, to notice that they did develop a lot from that starting pattern.

At 6:33 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I was thinking more of the shift from hierarchy and honor/shame to democracy and responsibility/guilt, or however one should characterize the eras.

Perhaps Italy has changed less than Northern Europe in these respects, but there's surely been change.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:54 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

I was thinking more of the shift from hierarchy (...) to democracy

A different pattern might be the fact of having been, in past times but not very long ago, strong kingdoms with vast colonies abroad. People not only in France and Spain, but also in Portugal, are very proud to be a nation, though their empire is gone (but it somehow survives, see Sarkozy and Northern Africa, namely Libya in these past few months). Whereas according to the "typical Mediterranean pattern", people are rather proud of their family, group, tribe, clan.

At 7:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'll have to think about that.

Jeffery Hodges

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