Apologizing to Muslims

Apologizing to Muslims

During this past October, 138 Muslim leaders released a letter that they had sent to Pope Benedict, calling for cooperation between Christians and Muslims in working to lessen tensions between the two religious communities. Of special interest was their clear critique of those who resort to violence in pursuing their religious aims: “To those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake, or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them, we say that our very eternal souls are also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and to come together in harmony.”

This important declaration was welcomed by the Catholic hierarchy, and rightly so. Since 9/11 we have heard many complaints in the Christian world about what has been seen as a deliberate silence on the part of most moderate Muslim leaders on the issues of extremism. These leaders have now taken a clear and bold stand, and they deserve our support.

On November 18, 300 Christian leaders, mostly Protestant, published a full-page ad in the New York Times expressing appreciation and support for the Muslim initiative. The signers included many evangelicals, including several of us from Fuller Seminary. Now things have begun to heat up for the evangelical signers. Recently a few of those who signed the ad, because of vocal criticisms from their supporters, have asked that their names be removed from the list of signers .I stand by my own support for that declaration, and I want to explain why.

Fuller is deeply engaged in the evangelical study of Islam. We make no apology for the fact that we are motivated by a deep desire to tell Muslims about the saving power of Jesus Christ. But we also want to do everything possible to work at mutual understanding and to find ways to cooperate with Muslims of good will to work for the common good by combating extremism and promoting peace.

The element of the New York Times ad that has stirred up the most criticism is our acknowledgement as Christians that we have sinned against Muslims, both in the Crusades and in more recent times.This apology was prefaced by the observation that our Lord requires that we remove what is in our own eyes before critiquing our neighbors for what they have in their eyes.

The critics obviously think it is unseemly to apologize for the Crusades or any actions that have figured into our conflicts with Muslim communities. What about that? Were the Crusades a bad thing? No, of course not. They were motivated by a desire to make it possible for Christians to continue to visit the Holy Land, which had been conquered by Muslim Arabs. That was a good motive and rationale. Nonetheless, there was some looting and even rape conducted by Christian warriors. And Middle Eastern culture, with its emphasis on “honor,” makes much more than we do of the need to keep remembering past offenses: Jews must remember the Holocaust, Armenian Christians the Turkish massacres, Muslims the Crusades.

The continuing issue here was illustrated at a recent Muslim-Christian consultation in Turkey. I have been told that there was much tension in the room, until a Christian speaker began his remarks by apologizing for the destruction and looting that the Crusades had caused there. The Muslim participants interrupted him with applause, and the mood quickly changed. The Muslims became much more receptive to the explanation that was given of the basic claims of the Christian Gospel.

I can’t speak for all who signed the New York Times ad, but my own motivation was two-fold. One was to keep the lines of communication open to Muslim leaders who are willing to take their own risks by publicly distancing themselves from their own extremists. The other, much more basic, was to remove those barriers that make it impossible for them to hear what we have to say about the power of the Gospel. I can’t think of a better way to witness to that power than by exhibiting the vulnerability that comes from publicly admitting our own sins and thereby perhaps gaining the right to speak about a forgiveness that can come only by God’s sovereign grace that has reached out to us at Calvary.

I am sorry that some of my evangelical friends have found it necessary to distance themselves from the ad. The Muslim leaders who spoke out against the extremists in their own part of the world took a big risk in taking that stand. We know for a fact that our willingness to admit past misdeeds makes it easier for them to ward off criticism from their compatriots who may feel that they should not have reached out in our direction. We have extended the hand of friendship and support to them. To pull back that hand now would be yet another thing for which we may someday have to apologize.


  1. Dr. Mouw,

    As one who is working to share Jesus in the Muslim world and as a Fuller student currently in the MAGL program, I want to say thank you for signing the ad. We must approach Muslims as learners, seeking conversation, in all humility. Yes, we must share Jesus; but, we have a lot of bridges to build before most Muslims would be able to even listen.

    Thanks again and stand strong…

    Comment by Eric — February 18, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

  2. Dear Rich,

    Thanks very much for your helpful comments regarding the New York Times letter, and for your decision to sign it. I support all of the reasons for which you chose to sign this document, and I do pray that much good will spring from the dialogue initiated by both the Muslim letter and the Christian response. I also agree that there is value in apologizing for the Crusades, particularly after hearing theologian Ida Glaser recently explain that–historically and currently–Muslim people often refer to the Crusades as the “Cross Wars.” My very limited knowledge leads me to believe that the Crusades encompassed at best a messy mixture of motives, including much that dishonored God. Clearly, I believe there are various Old Testament passages which provide a precedent for corporate confessions, both current and historical. Beyond that, your recounting of the incident at the Muslim-Christian consultation clearly demonstrates the healing properties of such confessions in today’s world.

    Personally, I wrestled with whether to sign the statement, and I eventually chose not to do so. My choice, however, demonstrated no disagreement with your commentary here. Rather, my concern came from the fact that the New York Times letter from Christians stated specific agreement with the idea that “our very eternal souls are also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and to come together in harmony.” In this one regard, I felt that the statement went beyond orthodoxy by suggesting tacit agreement with the idea that our access to heaven might depend on the good works of peacemaking. I deeply respect your choice to sign it, however, particularly given the fact that Muslim scholars are certainly aware of the Christian doctrine of salvation solely through grace. Whereas I believe we must be careful not to compromise on core doctrinal issues for the sake of harmony, I also think that I might have been too careful this time. Thank you for your signature, thank you for standing by your decision, and thanks also for offering this helpful explanation.

    Comment by Jeff Bjorck — February 18, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

  3. Please, please reconsider the phrasing in this statement before it becomes widely available. To speak in brief of the actual misdeeds during the Crusades as if they constituted merely a problem of “some looting and even rape” is naive and ignorant at best, if not insulting and outrageous. Please show some responsible awareness of the history involved here. Consult Karen Armstrong, Jerusalem, for starters.
    You wrote:
    “Were the Crusades a bad thing? No, of course not. They were motivated by a desire to make it possible for Christians to continue to visit the Holy Land, which had been conquered by Muslim Arabs. That was a good motive and rationale. Nonetheless, there was some looting and even rape conducted by Christian warriors. And Middle Eastern culture, with its emphasis on “honor,” makes much more than we do of the need to keep remembering past offenses: Jews must remember the Holocaust, Armenian Christians the Turkish massacres, Muslims the Crusades.”

    Comment by Gerald Shenk — February 19, 2008 @ 8:39 am

  4. Dear Dr. Mouw,

    While I tend, somewhat like Shenk, to think that the Crusades were worse than what you reflect, I again applaud your comments. I searched for a doctoral program for at least ten years, and a serious reader cannot accept some of the Christian rhetoric in Evangelicalism. I am again proud to be a Fuller student, thanks to you.

    Comment by Corky Alexander — February 23, 2008 @ 6:58 am

  5. Dear Dr. Mouw:

    I am a doctoral student in Christian Ethics at Fuller Seminary. I had the privilege of playing a (”two-bit”)role as a research assistant for three years in Fuller’s State Department-funded “Muslim-Christian Conflict Transformation Grant” (co-chaired by Fuller’s Dr. David Augsburger and American University’s Dr. Muhammad Abu-Nimer, and also involving Drs. Woodbury, Reisacher, Shenk, and Stassen on the Fuller/Christian side of the equation).

    One of the fruits of that project was a Fuller-published collection on peacemaking resources within and between the Muslim and Christian traditions. I contributed an essay promoting an “Abrahamic Paradigm for Just Peacemaking Practices” that used the contemporary “just peacemaking” framework of Glen Stassen and twenty-plus other Christian scholars to identify ancient peacemaking initiatives undertaken by Abraham in the narratives of both Genesis and the Qur’an (as well as those taken by the Prophet Muhammad, as told in Muslim “hadith” or traditional stories about him).

    My comments reflect the above comments, in both directions. Firstly, I also applaud Dr. Mouw and others at Fuller who signed this important declaration of goodwill towards Muslims and I certainly empathize with them about the “heat” they may now be feeling from certain quarters. With Dr. Gerald Shenk, however, I do find it somewhat astonishing to see a prominent contemporary Christian leader say quite so bluntly and publicly that the Crusades were clearly a “good thing.”

    I am trying to wrap my mind around how the Crusades even pass the bar of traditional Just War criteria, let alone the life and teachings/way of living and way of dying of Jesus Christ that we are remembering in this traditional season of repentance called Lent (walking with him to Jerusalem, over which Jesus himself lamented, due to its inability to see and do the “things that make for peace”).

    I understand your admirable desire to walk a middle road on a contentious matter (as you have so frequently and wonderfully modeled in the past), but perhaps you could be clearer on this point of the positive and/or justifiable value of the medieval Crusades (i.e., as being something other than a collective sin to be lamented).

    peace, shalom, and salaam in Christ,


    Comment by kent davis sensenig — February 28, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

  6. Dear Dr. Mouw:

    A follow-up on my earlier post, if I might. You suggest that defending traveling privileges to the Holy Lands for European Christians was a “good motive and rationale” for the Crusades. Even if we grant that historically there was a valid grievance about the immigration rules applied to European Christian pilgrims desiring to travel to the Holy Lands in the eleventh century CE (and that this was really a primary reason for the conflict), is that in and of itself justifiable grounds for even a single act of lethal violence, let alone five waves of invading and rampaging armies–and attempted long-term occupation of another kingdom and its peoples–over a period of two hundred years?

    By way of analogy, say the current Zionist state of Israel decided it would not allow any Muslims to make a pilgrimage to the “Dome of the Rock” mosque in East Jerusalem (one of Islam’s three holiest sites). Would Muslims then be justified in sending invading and occupying armies into Israel (raping, looting, and killing on a wide scale) in four or five successive waves over a 200 hundred year period, all in the name of Allah (and a fast ticket to heaven, as many Crusaders were promised by the Papal hierarchy)? Keep in mind that Israel has only been in control of the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock in E. Jerusalem for 40 years (taken by force of war in 1967), whereas Muslims had been ruling Jersualem at the time of the first Crusade for some 400 hundred years! (Also taken by force of war, although the Greek Orthodox, Nestorian, and Coptic Christians living in the region at the time were not so sad to see their oppresive Roman Catholic overlords booted out of the land, whatever historical regrets these communities may ultimately have come to feel about it.)

    It is also ironic that some of the (significant, not incidental) looting/raping/killing done by Europe’s “Christian warriors” was committed against fellow Christians (those pesky Greek Orthodox again), on their way to the Holy Lands, in the land now called Turkey.

    Is it really a Christian (or legally justifiable) act to kill thousands of Christians, Muslims, and Jews (who were also slaughtered by the Crusaders, just for the hell of it, I guess) in order to gain traveling privileges to visit the land where Jesus the Jewish Messiah taught love of enemies (while living nonviolently under a brutal Roman occupation that didn’t shrink from crucifying Jews by the thousands, as they did in Galilee during Jesus’ childhood, lining the highway with crosses according to Josephus), and who died a martyr’s death rather than call down armies of angels from heaven?

    (Speaking of remembering past injustices–like the European Christian Holocaust against 6 million Jews or Turkish massacre of 1-2 million Armenians, both 20th century events–Christians are asked to remember the execution of Jesus 2000 years ago, every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.) In any case, this “good motive and rationale” for the Crusades just doesn’t sound like what Paul called the “mind of Christ” to me.

    Once upon a time a couple Samaritan villages were not too friendly to Jesus and his merry band as they came through town. Several of his fiery disciples (the “sons of thunder” perhaps?) asked Jesus whether calling down fire from heaven to burn them up might not be a good idea (like Elijah did to the priests of Baal in ancient days or the American Empire’s current “shock and awe” missions into Afghanistan and Iraq). But turns out that Jesus (perhaps recalling Abraham’s plea to God to save Sodom and Gommorah for the sake of even 10 good men) was more a “shake the dust from your sandals and move on” kind of guy, when it came to going where you’re not wanted.

    peace, shalom, and salaam in Christ,


    Comment by kent sensenig — March 3, 2008 @ 10:34 pm

  7. Hello, Dr. Mouw:
    I was Visiting Adjunt Asst. Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller in 2000 and taught some summer courses before that. I have also met you from time to time at meetings of the AAR/SBL and the Society of Christian Ethics.
    Like Kent, I have trouble seeing anything positive about the Crusades. They do not meet the criteria of Just War, never mind the gospel commands toward nonviolence, love of enemies, and forgiveness. If Israel decided today to forbid Christian tourism, would desire to reopen such sites be a motive that anyone would claim justified a war?

    One reason for the Crusades was to stop knights in “Christian” Europe from attacking each other. How justified is that? What about the pogroms on Jews on the way to the Holy Land?

    Accounts seem to suggest that Jews were treated better when the Holy Land was controlled by Muslim Arabs than when controlled by the Byzantines.

    What are we to make of the blanket indulgences for sins given to Crusaders? Was there even any attempts made to open access to the Holy Land for Christians without war? What about the legend of King Richard the Lion Heart responding to a question about how the European Crusaders were to tell Jew from Muslim from Orthodox Christian with “Kill them all and let God sort them out?”

    I am glad you signed this statement and work to get better evangelical-Muslim relations. I believe in evangelism, too. But special pleading you give for the Crusades here worries me. If you, one of the most balanced of high-profile evangelical leaders in the JWT tradition could “semi-justify” the Crusades in this way (What’s next? Semi-justification of the Inquisition? Of burning witches at the stake? Of Reformed executions of Anabaptists?), then it is no wonder that fanatics like Hagee have such a following.

    I found this both disturbing and disappointing, sir.

    Pax Christi,

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White — April 26, 2008 @ 9:04 pm