The Third Way of Abrahamic Reconciliation

Article by Brian Cox, Fall 2006

The Reverend Canon Brian Cox is an Episcopal Priest and the Senior Vice President of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington DC. He is also Rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church of Santa Barbara, and Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University School of Law.

In January 2005 I visited Damascus, Syria to meet with Syrian officials and religious leaders to explore the possibility of a faith-based reconciliation seminar in the Middle East that would address the need for an alternative to religious extremism and also build bridges between Middle East Islamic leaders and American Christian and Jewish leaders. After hearing my message about faith-based reconciliation Sheik Salah Kuftaro invited me to speak the next day at Abunour Mosque during Jummah prayer. In my remarks to approximately 10,000 people I shared with them that as children of Abraham we face a common challenge. At the present time the world is being shaped by two competing ideologies, both grounded in a spirit of domination. We urgently need to articulate and implement a constructive third way, drawing from the best of the Abrahamic traditions for faith-based reconciliation.

The first problematic ideology wreaking havoc on the world today is what might be called American primacy, which envisions the United States as a benign hegemon in the world, imposing its will on other nations. Whether achieved through the use of diplomatic coalitions or military force, the patronizing objective of this ideology is remaking the world in America’s image. Unfortunately many Christians and even Jews in America tacitly or openly support this ideology without realizing that it is profoundly hostile toward the Islamic world and antithetical to the Abrahamic moral vision.

Fifteen years ago Charles Krauthammer wrote in Foreign Affairs of the arrival of what he called the “unipolar moment,” a geopolitical season in which one supreme power, the United States, had no rival in the international community. Since that time many articles and books have made a clear case that the United States alone possessed the military, economic, and technological power to restructure this unipolar world.

However, to do so, this power to restructure the world needed to be guided by a moral vision. Such a vision had been growing within the American policymaking apparatus and within the public consciousness; a vision that America had an exceptional messianic role in the world to spread liberal democracy and free market capitalism. This idealism has roots in eighteenth century America, which gave birth to a radically new type of nationbuilding in reaction to the experience of oppression and intolerance in Europe. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States envisioned a “more perfect union” that was later described as a “shining city on a hill.” The American Experiment was built on the core values of radical individualism, freedom, justice, human rights, religious tolerance, separation of church and state, the rule of law, checks and balances, and economic opportunity.

For the first time in history during the presidencies of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush these two elements, power and vision, have come together to define the ideology of American primacy. While both Bush Sr. and Clinton pursued American primacy through existing multilateral structures, Bush Jr. has taken the route of Bismarkian unilateralism. This momentous change in geopolitical strategy has turned the United States into an international bully and is creating reservoirs of hostility that run deep and wide, particularly in the Muslim world.

The second insidious ideology might be called global jihad, which is grounded in the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, but understands that doctrine to mean rule by Islamic leaders and institutions. What is lacking is a pluralistic vision of how people of faith might interpret submission to God in different ways. Unfortunately, many Muslims tacitly or openly support this ideology without realizing that they have embraced an understanding of the sovereignty of God that leads to a permanent state of hostility.

Reza Aslan in his book, No God but God, writes that “the doctrine of jihad, like so many doctrines in Islam, was not fully developed as an ideological expression until long after Muhammed’s death.” The word jihad originally meant to “struggle” or “to strive.” On the one hand, it was understood as the personal struggle for piety and submission to God. On the other hand, it also meant defending the Ummah, by any means necessary, from oppression or tyranny. Aslan observes that later generations of Islamic legal scholars developed “the classical doctrine of jihad” which divided the world into two spheres, the House of Islam and the House of War.

Building on that historical basis, the three founding fathers of militant Islam—Pakistani journalist Abdul Ala Mawdudi, Saudi Arabian professor Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (considered the founder of Sunni fundamentalism)—provided the ideological soul of what became an international network committed to fighting Western secularism and restoring the Glory of Islam. Built on the twin pillars of the sovereignty of God and jihad, Mawdudi and Azzam, in particular, were responsible for elevating the idea of jihad into core doctrine and redefining it as revolutionary struggle against the forces of secularism. This is the ideology that animates Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Wahabi ideology. While it must be said that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims do not support this radical militancy, it does have a power and influence far beyond its numbers.

These two ideologies, American primacy and global jihad, are on a collision course. What is needed is a third way; the way of faith-based reconciliation. This is at the heart of the Abrahamic moral vision and points to a common, practical mission for the children of Abraham—Jews, Christians and Muslims—in the twenty-first century. In her book, The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong writes, “The historian Edmund Burke was one of the first people to realize that if a group of people wished to challenge the ideology of the establishment, they will have to develop a counterrevolutionary ideology of their own.” To challenge both American primacy and global jihad the children of Abraham need not indulge naïve versions of ecumenism yet they must revisit basic elements of their common Abrahamic roots—as the Jewish prophet Isaiah exhorted [Isaiah 51:1-2]

In Genesis 12:1-2 the Jewish scriptures tell of a revelation to Abraham in which God calls him forth from the security of family relationships, homeland, and collective identity to begin a new experiment that ultimately becomes known as tikkun olam—to heal, to repair, to transform the world. As he journeys across the Fertile Crescent Abraham holds in his bosom the kernel of a transcendent vision. He responds in faith and it germinates into what has become the Abrahamic tradition. Three great communities of faith, over three billion people, trace their roots back to this decisive revelation. The Davidic star, the cross, the crescent—all are symbols that share in this defining moral vision.

The Jewish scriptures relate how the Abrahamic tradition was further defined in a revelation to Moses whom, with the liberated Hebrew slaves, God gives a covenant and moral law. It became the basis for a new society to be formed in the wilderness. The Torah was to be the core of a moral vision for society. It formed the basis of cultural values, institutions, and presuppositions within the new society that became known as Israel.

Two thousand years ago, when Jesus of Nazareth emerged upon the scene as a healer and reconciler, his simple message focused on the “breaking in” of the Kingdom of God or the establishment of God’s new society on earth. This moral vision was grounded in the Abrahamic tradition, but he sought to universalize it for all peoples.

Through the life, teachings, and example of Jesus, the Abrahamic tradition became further refined and crystallized. In my work in faith-based diplomacy, I summarize the ethical implications of this tradition in eight core values.

  1. The pluralistic vision of community: We seek unity in the midst of diversity.
  2. Compassionate inclusion: We seek to overcome hostility by the practice of unconditional love, including one’s enemies.
  3. Peacemaking: We seek the peaceful resolution of conflicts between individuals and groups.
  4. Social Justice: We seek the common good through transformation of the community.
  5. Forgiveness: We exercise forgiveness and repentance as individuals and communities to create the possibility of a better future together.
  6. Healing: We seek to heal the wounds of history through acknowledgement of suffering and injustice.
  7. Acknowledging God’s sovereignty: This is the bedrock of the faith-based perspective.
  8. Atonement with God: Ultimately, reconciliation is the process of finding peace with God and becoming a person of faith.

At the heart of these eight core values was the Abrahamic concept of God’s sovereignty or rule over societies and nations. In the New Testament Jesus taught that God’s sovereign rule would establish the common good, namely, a society based on respect for the dignity of every human being, the economics of compassion, the politics of love, the power of truth, and stewardship embodied in voluntary sacrifice. This was an ancient, but radical moral vision in its day and it still retains its revolutionary, transformational character in our day. It challenges people of faith in every age to a fundamental reorientation of their personhood and to the implementation of this vision in their societies. The apostle Paul called this radical moral vision “reconciliation.”

Six hundred years later, a spiritual and social reform movement emerged from the sands of Arabia. Initially Muhammed understood the revelations he received in Mecca and later Medina as a prophetic movement among Arab peoples. At the heart of his message and mission was a call for Arabs to embrace the Abrahamic tradition of submission to the one true God (tawhid), adherence to a moral law revealed in the sacred texts (Shari’a), and social justice as the basis for bringing about reconciled societies. More than any other tradition, Islam was grounded on a worldview characterized by the inseparable nature of faith and politics. They formed a seamless whole or a total way of life based on a unified worldview from the Quran and the Shari’a.

In 622 CE the community which had formed around Muhammed and his teaching migrated to Yathrib (Medina) and there they sought to create a new society based on the “religion of Abraham” and on the transcendent values that the nascent Muslim community shared with the “peoples of the book”. (Jews and Christians) Rising above Arab tribalism, Muhammed created an intentionally pluralistic and inclusive community grounded in social justice and forgiveness, that sought to resolve conflict by peaceful means. He sought to heal the wounds of the past by forging a new Arab identity based on submission to God. Amongst contemporary Muslims the “Yathrib community” of Muhammed’s time serves as the paradigm or model for faith-based societies.

As we enter the twenty-first century we have witnessed the collapse of the Marxist ideology and the emergence of two competing ideologies, American primacy and global jihad. Now, more than ever, the time is ripe to revisit the Abrahamic tradition as a sweeping transcendent moral vision that, if implemented in the form of faith-based reconciliation, points toward a “third way.” The French author Victor Hugo once wrote that there is nothing quite so powerful as an idea whose time has come. Faith-based reconciliation is an idea whose time has come.



Published in The Review of Faith & International Affairs, Vol. 4, No. 2
Fall 2006

Click here to download a PDF version of the speech.

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