Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Why Couldn't Presbyterians Affirm that Christians and Muslims Worship a Common God?

I find myself needing to revisit the General Assembly's statement on Christians and Muslims. I continue to find myself disturbed that the General Assembly couldn't say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. I am not critical of the the commissioners either individually or collectively; obviously, they struggled with this question. The statement with its revisions shows that they argued about this at length:

"2. State that [the PC(USA) affirms that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship a common God, 1 although each understands that God differently] though we hold differing understandings of how God has been revealed to humankind, the PC(USA) affirms our belief in one God, the God of Abraham, whom Jews and Muslims also worship; and that, as children of this loving God, we share the commandments of love for God and neighbor 2 , the requirement to care for the poor; and acknowledge Abraham as an expression of our common commitment to one God."

I am concerned that if Presbyterians (a fairly liberal mainline bunch on the whole) cannot affirm that Muslims and Christians worship a common God, how does that bode for relations between Christians and Muslims in general?

It isn't that we cannot say we worship a common God with other faith traditions. In 1987, the General Assembly approved the following paper: A Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews. In this paper, Presbyterians stated quite clearly:

"A reaffirmation that the God who addresses both Christians and Jews is the same--the living and true God."
That was a very important statement to make. That statement was made a few years after Rev. Bailey Smith, then President of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of the Jew."

The Presbyterian statement in 1987 was about respect and understanding. It was about healing the rifts between Jewish and Christian people. It was about our human need to bracket our differences long enough to affirm that at the heart of the matter, we are commonly bound together. As such, we need to work together for understanding and peaceful relations.

What keeps Presbyterians (or perhaps ecumenically-minded Christians in general) from saying that "the God who addresses both Christians and Muslims is the same--the living and true God?"

I realize that many have put forth various theological technicalities in attempt in to show that there is a difference between Jews and Muslims and their respective visions of God that allow Christians to affirm the God of the Jews but not of the Muslims. I am not persuaded.

Yet the majority of commissioners were persuaded either by the theological technicalities or perhaps by something more visceral regarding Islam and Muslims. I cannot say.

I can say that the relationship between Christianity and Islam is more tenuous than ever. It is possible that we could be entering a period of Holy War in which one nation lifts up "its God" over against "theirs" as spiritual ammunition for the battle.

If we can say theologically that their God is different or inferior or non-existent, it is far easier to respond violently to them than it is when we affirm that we are ultimately brothers and sisters who worship a common God beyond our limited understanding.

It is for the cause of peace and respect of others in their common humanity that we need to say clearly that Muslims, Christians, and Jews do worship a common God. We need to hold that affirmation up especially in times in which these religions are used to foster violence and hatred.

I am pleased that the General Assembly did the following:

5. Commission a study on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations that would have the same scope and authority as the 1987 study on Christian-Jewish relations, 5 to be carried out by the Interfaith Relations and Theology and Worship Offices of the General Assembly Council.
I hope this study will be taken with all seriousness and importance. This could be the single most important issue that religious people will face in the coming decades.

34 comments:

  1. I am about to use this in a post either on FranIam, my church blog or both...

    In the meantime, I leave it here with many prayers and great love.

    All Real Living is Meeting
    by Martin Buber

    Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, God,
    I do not suppose You are very tied to titles,
    You seem to revel more
    in creating and loving
    Than arguing like we do.

    You are beyond any name,
    Beyond this group or that,
    Beyond ideas or any ability to
    Control You by definitions.

    You are the Utterly Free One.
    You are the Eternal I
    That always allows me to be a Thou
    Whenever we meeet.

    You are the Speaker, I am the spoken,
    So Love must be Your name!
    Which is always beyond words.

    Amen.

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  2. That is a beautiful prayer, Fran! Thank you!

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  3. Yes - I want to write more about it, but it was just what seemed to fit here.

    It was on the back of a prayer card that I got from the Center for Action & Contemplation and on the front was an image of St. Francis meeting the Sultan.

    Brilliant really. Imagine if we talked and agreed without coopting each other.

    Pax my brother!

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  4. What keeps Presbyterians (or perhaps ecumenically-minded Christians in general) from saying that "the God who addresses both Christians and Muslims is the same--the living and true God?"

    The sad truth, John, is that it's still socially acceptable in the United States to hate Muslims. Thank God it is no longer the case for Jews. Anti-Semitism finally got the scorn it so richly deserves, but what a terrible price to pay for that victory.

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  5. I'm ambivalent regarding our relationship with Islam.

    Liberal Muslim apologists make a good case for the common threads and the legitimacy of Islam as a religion that worships the same God as we do.

    But the way Islam creates social unrest in a country as it goes through the "Islamisation process" says something else.

    We differ from Islam on fundamental values. Freedom being the biggest one.

    For example, while slavery was abolished in Christian Europe by 1300, it wasn't officially abolished in Saudi Arabia until 1962.

    "Setting the captives free" is a cornerstone of the Gospel that we take for granted today. Not so with Islam.

    The slave trade out of Africa was only enabled by Muslim traders. As bad as the Americas treated the Africans that were enslaved to work the plantations, it was almost tangential to the genocidal sweep the Muslims made across Africa, bringing their surviving male captives to the coast for sale to the Europeans. (they tended to keep the females for sexual slavery in harems). When Christianity finally realized the magnitude to the sin that too came to an end.

    But you could say that's the past, lets move to the future. In that case look at how Islam is affecting France or Holland, or how it fuels the Arab Israeli conflict, or see the openness of Saudi Arabia or Yemen, or what the Taliban Muslims did to Afghanistan and its culture.

    In some heavily Muslim countries they practice female "circumcision", which is a form of mutilation that is nothing like male circumcision. It's brutal sexual oppression sanctioned by religion.

    So I feel a sense of cognitive dissonance. Will the real Islam please stand up. Is it a social movement, a political movement, or a religion, or all of the above?

    Can we allow one and resist the other? Does the PCUSA know which Islam it wants to engage and how? Washington with all its resources and think tanks messed that up badly, how is the PCUSA going to do any better?

    Peace requires dialog, dialog requires concessions, but do we know the lines we are unwilling to cross?

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  6. Interestingly, Vatican II affirmed back in 1965 what the PC(USA) still won't, namely that Muslims worship the same God that Christians do.

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  7. I think the huge amount of misinformation regarding Islam in the United States in general and amongst American Christians in particular underlines the need for open and honest dialog.

    Fundamentalism of any stripe--Christian, Jewish or Muslim-- is dangerous. Mixing state and religion, whether it be in the Americas or in the middle east, is dangerous. Restricting the freedom of religion or giving one religion special status over another is dangerous.

    Female genital mutilation--which is NOT a tradition of Islam but of north Africa--is completely and totally wrong. Most Muslims would agree.

    Islam is not responsible for the African slave trade. There were Muslim slave traders (who would not trade other Muslims), yes, but there were also many, MANY Christian slave traders and traders who belonged to neither religious tradition. There wasn't a moment when Christianity realized the magnitude of the sin and brought it to an end. If anything, Christians took this evil practice and magnified the market for it. Slavery was justified using Scripture and it was a political movement that ultimately ended it in the United States. Slavery still exists today and is sanctioned by some Christians.

    Indeed, let's look at how Islam affects modern societies. Look at the freedom and openness of Dearborn, Michigan, for an example of how people of different religious backgrounds can coexist in a society that vigorously protects freedom of religion and promotes multiculturalism. What makes the Muslim experience in America so different from that in Britain?

    Jodie, you ask "is [Islam] a social movement, a political movement, or a religion, or all of the above?"

    The same question is frequently asked by Christians about Jews: is Judaism and Jewishness an ethnicity, a nationality, a political movement, a religion or all of the above?

    The response of the PC(USA) to those questions led to our adopting the program of interfaith dialog back in 1987. And similarly, there is no easy way to know which people within Judaism we wanted to talk to and engage. Judaism is not monolithic just as Christianity isn't just as Islam isn't.

    It's high time (if not past time) to engage in the same kind of dialog with our Muslim brothers and sisters.

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  8. Has anyone here ever read the Qur'an? Ignorance is not bliss.

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  9. Yes, I've read the Quran, and like the Bible, it has a lot of horrifying stuff in it if read cover to cover. That's certainly something Muslims will have to deal with, just as Christians have begun to deal with the horrifying things in our own holy book (and have periodically struggled to do so in history)

    It also has a lot of beautiful stuff, as does our Bible. So the decision is, do we pretend we treat it all the same, or do we admit we're selective and talk about how we *should* be selecting? (If Calvin and Augustine could bring themselves to do that, we should to)

    I actually disagree with the whole project here, I've decided. If we say that worshipping the same God as the Muslims, and affirming that, is a path to peace, what does that say to the prospects of peace for Christians and atheists, or Christians and Buddhists, or Christians and Whomever?

    We need to affirm that violence of any kind is never ok to inflict on any human being ever. We need to affirm that we will respect people's dignity regardless of their religions tradition. I don't want to just expand our tribe a little - I want an end to tribalism.

    What I mean is, insofar as the question of how we should treat another human being, the God they worship or do not worship should not matter. Our ethical standards should be the same.

    This isn't to say we can't be critical of other faiths - just as we have to be critical of our own. All I mean is - I guess I don't care if we worship the same God as Muslims. I'm going to treat Muslims with the respect that I try to show anyone, and I'm going to make my decisions about individual Muslims based on their words and actions, just like I try to do with anyone else.

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  10. Interesting post Reverend Shuck. The problem I see is that the PC(USA) aligns itself to close to political ideology. It seems as though they don't want to go to far astray from the current political structures of our day and confront fundamental reasons/solutions for the problems we face. I can also imagine that they don't want to p*** alot of christians off. My dad used to dislike the Islamic faith and would say awful things. Aftering studying the Muslim faith a bit, he has totally changed his point of view.

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  11. Thanks all for these comments. I am going to push Doug just a bit, though.

    First of all I affirm what you have written. I don't care if you worship a goat, I still want to be at peace with you.

    It is just that in our context today, when there is so much unhealthy conversation regarding Christians and Muslims, that we do need to talk and make some common affirmations (or at least talk about what common affirmations we can make).

    I do think that making that common affirmation does make us think twice about demonizing each other.

    Frankly, I see this happening in our beloved PCUSA. Why is it that some who disagree with certain decisions or positions of other presbys feel the need to state that we have no longer any common language, or are even apostate?

    If you can say those things (ie. you are not a Christian, to other Christians) then you can justify some awful ethical behavior.

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  12. "I'm going to treat Muslims with the respect that I try to show anyone, and I'm going to make my decisions about individual Muslims based on their words and actions, just like I try to do with anyone else."

    Beautiful comment Doug. I think at the core of it, all religions teach this basic principle. I don't think the battles we are fighting today are really about God or the differences between our religions. I think it is more of a political struggle that is being sold to us as a religious battle. I think when Americans learn the truth about how America (i.e. the plutocrats of the world) are expanding their Empire in the Middle East and that the true Christian way is to let countries live freely and not force them to live under our control(i.e. by subsidizing them and dictating their rulers, etc.)then people of the earth will join together to fight the evil superpowers of the world.

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  13. "If we say that worshipping the same God as the Muslims, and affirming that, is a path to peace, what does that say to the prospects of peace for Christians and atheists, or Christians and Buddhists, or Christians and Whomever?"

    I was wondering that same question. What would atheists think about recognizing a greater good such as one God based on the principles Doug laid out, ethical standards and treating people with respect and giving them their freedom to live how they want to.

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  14. Yes, Jim, I've read the Quran and the book of Joshua. Both have terrifying bits. Does that mean I should be scared of both Muslims and Jews?

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  15. Doug,

    While I was thinking more of institutional engagement, your points are well taken.

    Most important I think is your point regarding making Islam somehow unique among other faiths.

    "insofar as the question of how we should treat another human being, the God they worship or do not worship should not matter. Our ethical standards should be the same"

    This is the better path to explore.
    ___________________________________

    There still is the fact that the cultural rivalry between Islam and Christianity is at a new flash point. The forces at play are tectonic, complex, and overwhelming at the level of individual human beings. Our history is one of war and religious repression.

    We have not yet invented a working alternative except "good fences make good neighbors". Merely taking down the fences as a gesture of good will is probably as dangerous as disarming a booby-trapped IED.

    So back to Doug's point, what is lacking in Christianity today, whether we are dealing with rival Christian factions within the Presbyterian Church or between rival religions on the global geopolitical stage is the Christian ethic for relating to our enemies. We either want to demonize them or pretend they are really friends.

    Neither is correct.

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  16. First, "Allah" is just Arabic for "God". Second, Jews, Christians and Muslims share Abraham as spiritual ancestor. But third...

    http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/quran/004.qmt.html#004.171

    004.171
    YUSUFALI: O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: Nor say of Allah aught but the truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) a messenger of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His messengers. Say not "Trinity" : desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is one Allah: Glory be to Him: (far exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs.

    Allah, according to the Quran, has no son. Therefore, Allah is not the father of Jesus. Also, the Quran says that Allah is not a part of a Trinity. So, Allah is not the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit.

    How can Christians possibly affirm that we worship a common God?

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  17. "How can Christians possibly affirm that we worship a common God?"

    That depends on whether God is a function of what people say about God.

    If Christians created their God and Muslims crated theirs, then I agree, they are not the same God.

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  18. Jodie wrote:

    "That depends on whether God is a function of what people say about God.

    If Christians created their God and Muslims created theirs, then I agree, they are not the same God."


    That is a crucial point. That is a question we don't address directly. What level of realism are we talking about when we talk about the names and doctrines we have for God?

    Certainly, the names and doctrines are our creations (even if they are inspired revelation) but is the Reality to which they point also a creation or is something there?

    If there is a Reality, then, our language must be limited even if inspired.

    So it would require some humility, which I think would cause us to say,

    "Yes, we Christians and Muslims participate in a common reality or worship a common God."

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  19. The problem I see within the christian faith is that many christians tend to worship Jesus Christ instead of the God of all creation. I remember as a child, peers talking bad about how Muslims worship Muhommad, a Prophet, instead of God or Allah. In reality it's the other way around.

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  20. Um... but according to orthodox Christian teaching, Jesus Christ IS the God of all creation. When we worship Jesus, we are worshipping God.

    "But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom." - Heb. 1:8

    There are many more passages of Scripture that bear this out.

    This is the big problem that Muslims have with Christians - they say we are worshipping multiple gods, when the truth is, we are worshipping one God who revealed Himself in three separate persons - Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

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  21. OK, Chester, then was the Presbyterian Church wrong in 1987 (and still wrong as it still says it) that, "...the God who addresses both Christians and Jews is the same--the living and true God."

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  22. Hello, John.

    That declaration is correct. But it's apples and oranges.

    The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament, as demonstrated by Jesus and the writers of the NT in multiple passages.

    But the God of the Old and New Testaments is not the God of the Quran, as demonstrated by the passage I showed, unless God has a multiple personality disorder.

    Of course, that is all my opinion, based on personal reflection, a bit of study, and an attempt at logic. When I die I might discover I was wrong.

    Chester

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  23. The reason I have such a hard time being a "Christian" is because it is hard for me to imagine Jesus Christ being more than a prophet of God. Yes, I believe in salvation and the atonement, but not in some magical way. To me the atonement was given to us through Jesus by his example. If we follow the teachings of Jesus Christ we will live a happy and fulfilling life and maybe even enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I also believe that Christ, God and the Holy Spirit are one. They are one because Jesus led the path for humans to grow close to God and obtain the Holy Spirit. I believe that Muhammed did this for the peoples of the middle east. Why wouldn't they be given the chance to know God, just as christians have?

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  24. Chester, the problem with that analysis is that you have to completely ignore Jewish objections (and they are pretty big ones) to trinitarian theology.

    Jews do not believe that the Messiah is God, nor do they believe in a Holy Spirit per se. The Trinity almost didn't catch on even in Christianity. Jews reject categorically the concept of a Trinity, and the objection (identical to that of the Muslims) is "we worship one God, not three versions of God".

    It should go without saying that Jews do not believe that God is revealed by what Christians call The New Testament. God is only revealed in the Tanakh (what Christians call The Old Testament). Christians embrace both. Similarly, Muslims embrace what we call the Old and New Testaments, but the Quran is the final and authoritative revelation of God to humanity.

    Evangelical Christians treat the New Testament in a similar way: you'll hear "the Ten Commandments were nailed to the cross", "the Levitical laws (except for those dealing with The Gay) don't apply to Christians anymore", and weirdly "Jesus said 'I came not to change the law, but to fulfill it'; ergo, Jesus fulfilled the law so it no longer applies."

    So Chester, I'll ask John's question again: why is it a good and noble thing for the PC(USA) to say that both Christians and Jews worship the God of Abraham, but apostasy to say that Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the God of Abraham? The Jews think we're just as off base on the New Testament as we think the Muslims are with the Quran and the Muslims think the Mormons are off base with the Book of Mormon and as everybody thinks the Scientologists are off base with the works of the late L. Ron Hubbard.

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  25. Certainly, the names and doctrines are our creations (even if they are inspired revelation) but is the Reality to which they point also a creation or is something there?

    If there is a Reality, then, our language must be limited even if inspired.


    You hit the nail on the head, John.

    The Reality of God is beyond our limited capacity to name it or characterize it with human language. The fact that the different monotheistic religions all point to this Reality in different ways doesn't mean that the Reality itself is different. I often make the analogy of the blind man and the elephant when it comes to religion, and I think it applies here.

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  26. Rachel,

    I understand your hesitations. There are lots of reasons why being a Christian is difficult. But I suppose the thing that makes it easier is the exact thing that you mention here as making it hard - and that is Jesus.

    My wife is a Christian who grew up Muslim in an athiest country. She became a Christian before I met her. Why? She fell in love with Jesus. I live in my wife's country, and I've seen her story repeated over and over - it's all about Jesus here for Christians. Not church history, not doctrine, not polity - Jesus. And that's the way it should be.

    And the only way we have to know about Jesus is through the words of Scripture - and Scripture doesn't just talk about Jesus' good activities and nice moral teachings - it also has Jesus and his closest friends saying the exact things about Jesus that you said make you feel uncomfortable.

    In his book Mere Christianity, Lewis makes this statement, "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg - or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us."

    And, by the way, if you trace Christianity back to the beginning, it is rooted in the Middle East, a few hundred years before Mohammad. So, you could say that JC has squatter's rights on that region! ;)

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  27. Thanks, Chester, for your version of Jesus and Christianity which is a valid one.

    There are other ways that folks embrace Jesus and the Christian faith as well, despite the claims of C.S. Lewis.

    The eight points of Progressive Christianity is one way.

    Peace,
    john

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  28. Chester, I get it. You're all about Jesus. I'm happy for you, but you say,

    "it's all about Jesus here for Christians-Not church history, not doctrine, not polity - Jesus. And that's the way it should be."

    Why couldn't you say, it's all about God here for the world?

    What do you say to christian sects and different religions who claim that it's all about Joseph Smith (and Jesus) or it's all about Muhammmed, or Buddha? In your viewpoint, do you think that all of the world should be Christian for us to have peace?

    Check out my new blog to follow the liberty movement.

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  29. John,

    I read the eight points, and there are definitely things there that I can affirm. Here they are with some personal commentary:

    1 (but would change "an" to "the" - John 14:6)
    2 (sort of. I would say respect people who have other ways, respect those other ways, but be honest about the disagreements we may have about those ways, and respectful in the way we discuss those disagreements)
    3 (at least partly)
    4 (I definitely don't want anyone to become like me - I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy!)
    5 (does how we treat each other on the internet count? If so, we might all be screwed. ;) )
    6 (minus the use of the word "more", and an addition of the importance of faith in the things we're told in Scripture but don't understand (Hebrews 11:1))
    7 (but would add the Biblical mandate to sharing God's Good News and fulfilling Matt 28:19)
    8, certainly

    Chester

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  30. Thanks Chester, sounds like we agree on a lot.

    There is a big difference between an "an" and a "the" though, isn't there! :)

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  31. Hi Rachel,

    I visited your blog, and like the picture of your child in the giant crab. Cool. My kids would love that.

    You wrote:
    "What do you say to christian sects and different religions who claim that it's all about Joseph Smith (and Jesus) or it's all about Muhammmed, or Buddha?"

    I would enjoy sitting and talking with them, discussing what I believe and what they believe. If the discussion went deep enough, I would disagree with them on many salient points. I would be honest about that with them, but in the end I wouldn't judge them because as a Christian, that's not my job.

    And most important, I would hope that after our discussion that they would be closer to Jesus.

    "In your viewpoint, do you think that all of the world should be Christian for us to have peace?"

    Ha! No, I don't think that would do the trick. A quick reading of Christian history shows that Christians aren't very good at living up to Jesus' example. But, I do think Jesus is the key to peace in individuals.

    "I have told you this so that through me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble, but be courageous-I have overcome the world!" John 16:33

    If all people were truly following Jesus' example in all areas of life, we could have peace. And this is something I personally strive for, but often fail (like Paul says in Romans 7:14-20).

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  32. "If all people were truly following Jesus' example in all areas of life, we could have peace. "

    I agree with ya, but that doesn't seem likely to happen in today's world.

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  33. Agreed.

    I suppose that like old song says, if there is going to be peace, it has to start with me.

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  34. Chester, once again, if neither Judaism or Islam affirm the divinity of Jesus OR the Trinity (though Islam acknowledges the virgin birth and the second coming), then why is affirming a common God between Christianity and Judaism acceptable, but affirming a common God between Christianity, Judaism and Islam not acceptable?

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