Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Twenty-Five Years of Christian-Muslim Work at LSTC, 1985-2010

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Twenty-Five Years of Christian-Muslim Work at LSTC, 1985-2010

Article excerpt

For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake. (2 Cor 4:5)

I want to thank the organizers of this Faculty Conference for inviting us to join in this time of remembering and reflecting on Christian-Muslim work begun at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in 1984-85. Thinking back to those humble beginnings the names of quite a few colleagues come to mind without whose support little would have been accomplished. Several have passed away, others couldn't be here, but some are present, and for that I am deeply grateful. My good friends and colleagues Dr. Ghulam Haider Aasi and Dr. Mark Thomsen are with us, and I've asked them to share in these reflections. (1)

The context

Thinking back to that first year at LSTC, I am reminded of the context. Weather-wise it was cold in Chicago. I recall that during our conference in February of 1985 we had the coldest weekend ever recorded for the city, 26 below zero. 1 wouldn't say it was indicative of the state of Christian-Muslim relations then, but certainly they were anything but warm. The Iranian revolution was still sparking fear in people's minds and we were engaged in two proxy wars: one supporting the mujahidin in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, the other in Iraq supporting Saddam Hussein against Iran. Aquote from Graham Fuller, a Middle East specialist with the CIA during the 1980s, helps illumine the political landscape. Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1991, he said:

  There was a genuine visceral fear of Islam in Washington as a force
  that was utterly alien to American thinking, and that really scared
  us. Senior people at the Pentagon and elsewhere were much more
  concerned about Islam than communism. It was an almost obsessive
  fear, leading to a mentality on our part that you should use any
  stick to beat a dog to stop the advance of Islamic fundamentalism.
  (2) [The "stick," of course, was Iraq, and Iran the "dog."]

According to this, Islam was a force "utterly alien to American thinking," creating a "visceral" and "obsessive fear" on the part of Americans. A rosy picture it was not, the challenge was great (just as it is now)! Thank goodness there were people at LSTC willing then, as now, to take up the challenge and to work at improving Christian-Muslim relations.

LCA background

How did we happen to come to LSTC in 1984? Allow me a brief historical excursus as background to our work here. My first wife Neva and I had gone out as missionaries with the Reformed Church in America in 1963 to work in the Arabian Gulf, in Bahrain and the Sultanate of Oman. It was there in 1971 that Dr. Fred Neudoerffer (3) came to interview us about working in a new project that the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) was planning: to engage Muslim youth, primarily in Palestine/Israel. The ideologue behind this new venture was a scholar by the name of Bruce Schein who had been working with the LCA for some years in Jerusalem. He was a dynamic young man, single, with boundless creative energy and strong persuasive powers. It was his idea, after three years of intense research, to bring together a team of people who would engage a whole generation of Muslim youth, living under occupation, disenchanted and disillusioned with the past, but straining for a better future, and open to new ideas and possibilities.

Let me quote a few sentences from Schein's final report, entitled "The Mission," (4) which may help clarify the background. It is 52 pages long, single spaced! In it he quotes approvingly from Dr. Denis Baly of Kenyon College who, in a personal letter to Bruce, wrote:

  I am myself convinced that the great days of direct Evangelism are,
  in the providence of God, over, and that a new era is opening which I
  would characterize by the phrase "conversation not conversion". ...
  [We must be] ready to learn before we begin to teach. … 
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