A space for freedom
Offering hospitality to Muslims in America
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What’s a nice theologian doing in the middle of a political debate? Matthew Kaemingk, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, is the author of Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (Eerdmans, 2018). He says Biblical understanding on immigration “should spring from the actual work of Jesus, who made space for me when I was His enemy.” We met at a Center for Public Justice panel discussion in Washington, D.C., and then continued the conversation via Skype. Here are edited excerpts:
Since your book came out in January, you’ve been on the road talking about this hot topic. Any lightning strikes along the way?
I’ve received critiques from both sides, left and right. But overall I sense a yearning, particularly among Christian audiences, beyond right and left: If you boil the debate down to simply “Do you open doors or do you close them?”—that’s not a helpful debate. The real discussions and hard questions are about how do we live together once differences are already inside the home.
You write about multiculturalism on the left and nationalism on the right, but you also present a third way. What’s that?
The third way acknowledges that the political right is very correct, that Muslim immigration presents real challenges to the West. The left is correct that Muslim immigrants are human beings with rights, dignity, and freedom. Christian pluralism says if Christ is King, that means Christians are not. I do not have the right to exclude, demonize, or forcibly assimilate Muslim communities. Christ is King over the mosque, and it’s Christ who will make those judgments.
‘Let’s think less about face-to-face theological debates or interfaith dialogues, and more about having one another over for food, working together, caring for one another’s sick.’
How does Abraham Kuyper help us think about Christian pluralism and a third way?
Kuyper was a Christian theologian and politician 120 years ago in the Netherlands. The nation was bitterly divided between Protestants and Catholics, socialists and liberals, yet he developed a theological case for treating others with justice. Not because other ideologies were true or deserving, but because God demands that we treat our opponents with love.
You spent time researching Muslim immigration in the Netherlands. What did you learn from the Dutch secularist responses to Islam?
Secular liberals tend to misunderstand faith in three ways. They believe faith is a private preference not relevant to the public debate. Second, they believe that faith is a special thing only for some people, and they themselves have risen above faith. So they create a hierarchy of all the religions down here and the liberals up here. This makes it impossible for them to treat religious minorities with justice because they believe they have transcended religion and faith. They cannot see their own faith-based foundations. Third, they believe we can be united through government-run education and awareness programs.
Kuyper was perhaps ahead of his time in reflecting with some concern on Islam’s “summons to holy war.” How do you address the real fears Americans have about Islam after 9/11 and other attacks?
Bringing up the threats and real challenges with Islam does not make you a racist or a bigot. It’s important to challenge Muslims on those issues. But in Christian theology we believe all of us are created with certain value and rights that we didn’t earn and we cannot lose. We don’t offer freedom to Muslims because we think they earned it. We offer it because our God demands it.
I often get questions like this: In Muslim countries Christians are not given religious freedom, so why should we give religious freedom to them? That is a fundamental misunderstanding of a Christian approach to democracy and freedom. Christ offers us freedom, dignity, and love as free gifts, not on trade or contract.
And therein is the risk.
Democracy is fundamentally a risk. Kuyper specifically speaks to the possibility that a nation could be taken over by an ideology wanting to crush you. He says, “Leave it to Christian believers, if need be to Christian martyrs, to have the honor of demonstrating the intrinsic emptiness of non-Christian spiritual life.”
It’s one thing if you and I say we are willing to take the risk, but should we take that risk for our children and grandchildren?
As Christians we don’t want to be transformed by our enemies or by fear, we want to be transformed by Christ. It’s tempting to try to “solve Islam” through government power, but that government machinery can be turned around on Christianity as well.
You seem to leave us no alternative but to practice hospitality to Muslim neighbors. How do we begin?
Hospitality should be practiced much the same way we practice the piano. We will do it badly at first, but we do it over and over again, practicing life alongside our Muslim neighbors. So let’s think less about face-to-face theological debates or interfaith dialogues, and more about having one another over for food, working together, caring for one another’s sick. Here’s where Christ comes in. Christ is our model of hospitality in that He opens His arms on the cross at great personal pain and great personal sacrifice. He is not romantic about hospitality, but He is with us. He shows up in those small moments of having coffee with a neighbor, fellow student, or friend.
Do you think this radical view of hospitality can affect our political discourse and engagement?
As a theologian I think of myself as a servant of the church, so I work really hard not to give specific political advice.
That’s why I’m asking you.
It’s important for pastors and theologians not to dictate political policy but to empower Christian citizens to think Christianly about politics. I want to provide the Biblical framework for wrestling with these tough political issues, but the decisions are going to be different in different places. Issues like the Syrian refugee crisis require good theology, but also political awareness and wisdom.
What do you hope American Christians take from this book?
My hope is that American Christians would think of Muslim immigration not as a problem to be overcome but as a profound opportunity to be grasped. Their Muslim neighbors are not an issue to be resolved, but people to be loved. This is a unique historical moment in which the church has the opportunity to be the church, the hands and feet of Jesus, to share the hospitality we’ve received.
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