Evangelization, for Christians, is the proclamation of the good news of God’s love, revealed through the prophets and through Jesus.
Since the beginning of Christianity to now, there has been a tension between those who understand evangelization exclusively and those who understood it inclusively. Exclusivists think that only Christians will be saved, and so are eager to convert everyone else to Christianity, whereas inclusivists think that others besides Christians can also be saved. Some passages in the New Testament seem to support exclusivism (e.g. John 14:16; Acts 4:12) but others seem to support inclusivism (e.g. Acts 10:35 where the apostle Peter declares “Truly, I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable unto him.”)
Thus there are divergent interpretation among Christian churches. The problem with an exclusivist understanding of Christian evangelization is that by focusing on what separates Christians from everyone else it often leads to division, hatred, strife, and war. It was one of the roots of the Crusades and one of the motives of colonialism (though probably the main motive was greed).
The Crusades and colonialism, though done in the name of evangelization, were in fact the opposite of evangelization. One cannot witness to God’s love by spreading oppression, war, and violence. Consequently, in recent centuries, a more inclusivist understanding of evangelization become prominent in many Christian churches.
Mother Theresa, a Roman Catholic nun, is a striking example. She founded an order of nuns in Calcutta to care for the dying and the poorest of the poor. These nuns did not try to convert the poor Hindus and Muslims they were caring for to Christianity. Rather they witnessed to God’s love by expressing that love in their lives and work. This is the most basic form of evangelization.
As Catholic Cardinal Ivan Dias noted in his talk on Mission, Social Justice, and Evangelization to the Anglican Lambeth conference, (22 July, 2008): “In the first Christian era, the pagans were attracted to the Christian faith because of the way Christians behaved, and they remarked: ‘See how they love each other’.” Certainly this includes belief in God (and, for Christians in the role of Jesus Christ), but a belief that is expressed in a life which witnesses to love and surrender to God and to neighbor.
The two primary commandments of God, as explained by Jesus, were: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” ... and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
A similar idea is expressed in the Qu’ran “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in God and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the prophets; and giveth wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor-due.” (Al Baqarah 2:177). It is also expressed in a saying of the Prophet: “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.” (Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Iman, 67-1, Hadith no. 45, cited in “A Common Word Between Us and You” note xix; see www.acommonword.com)
If our common call as Christian and Muslim believers is to witness to the one, transcendent God, then evangelization ought not to divide us, but to bring us together. The exclusivist understanding of evangelization has left a legacy of bloodshed and bitterness. It is time for Christians and Muslims to ponder whether we are not called together to witness to God against the real enemies of our time, which are materialism and Godlessness.
In my dialogue with my Muslim brothers and sisters, I do not pray that they become Christians, but that they become better Muslims, that is, more perfect witnesses to God. I pray the same for myself and all believers in God.
This does not mean that I see all religions as equal. As a Catholic Christian, I believe that the fullness of God’s love was revealed through the life and teaching of Jesus the Christ. But I also believe God’s love is revealed through other prophets and religions.
My Muslim colleagues believe that the fullness of God’s revelation came through the Qur’an, but also believe that God has sent prophets to other peoples and religions. I think that we, Christians and Muslims, can live with this difference, while recognizing that we are together seeking to submit to the one God.
Dr. Terence Nichols
Co-Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Dialogue
University of St. Thomas
St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A.