Title: Strangers, Neighbors, Friends: Muslim-Christian-Jewish Reflections on Compassion and Peace
Author: Kelly James Clark, Aziz Abu Sarah and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer
Publisher: Cascade Books, 2018
Reviewer: Louise Simon
The stated aim of Strangers, Neighbors, Friends “…is to inform and inspire faith-based action—to courageously extend our divinely motivated love beyond family, friend, and neighbor to the stranger.” The three authors, a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jewish Rabbi, argue that each of the three Abrahamic religions share a common ground their demand for compassion toward “the stranger,” and therefore should work together to cultivate mutual peace and harmony. They suggest that compassion, kindness, love, and generosity will “transform strangers into neighbors and friends.”
The book is divided into three sections, one per author, and is an exploration of each of their faiths from a personal, as well as theological, point of view. Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian peace activist, journalist, and social entrepreneur, paints a powerful picture of what it was like to grow up as a Palestinian living in Jerusalem, and does not sugar-coat his teenage, radicalized responses to the humiliation, dehumanisation, and demonisation that he suffered at the hands of those he considered his enemies. His journey to a different understanding of Islam as a religion which promotes peace, love, grace and forgiveness, and to friendship and fellowship with Israelis and Jews, is compelling. He also details how he sought to actively understand how Christians understand the Bible through enrolling in a Bible college in Jerusalem. The principles of Scriptural interpretation which he learned there led him to apply the same principles to the interpretation of the Qur’an. He goes on to persuasively argue how various Qur’anic verses and hadith, particularly those which are often read as encouraging violence, division, and enmity, have been misread and misinterpreted.
Kelly James Clark, a philosopher and Senior Research Fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, Grand Valley State University, draws on the Bible, and particularly Jesus’ example, to show why Christians should put aside prejudice towards and negative judgments of ‘others’ (Muslims and Jews) and learn to be loving, hospitable, generous, and compassionate instead.
Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, a Rabbi and self-confessed ‘Reconstructionist Jew,’ emphasises the need for followers of each faith to listen to each other, in particular to listen to each other’s stories, in order to learn from each other and begin to bear each other’s burdens together. She discusses what she has learned from rabbinical teachings about passages in the Torah and from the performance of Jewish rituals, and points towards the reasons why we should treat each other with respect, love, and compassion (e.g. humans have been created in the image of God).
Although each author strives to give readers a theological basis from which to act and think differently, I struggled with many of their interpretations. Aziz Abu Sarah’s argument about Qur’an 9:5, which is often used by Muslims to justify the killing of non-Muslims, is that the justice and peace that Muslims are enjoined to give non-Muslims (in Qur’an 9:7) is conditional upon the behaviour of the non-Muslims—if they respond to the peace overtures by upholding their end of the treaty (brokered in Qur’an 9:1), and ‘repenting,’ then they should be forgiven and not attacked. Fighting and attack therefore is a “last resort,” and a matter of self-defence. Such an interpretation, to me, leaves the gate wide open for Muslims to justify attack by claiming they were indeed attacked first, be that attack historical, verbal, physical, cultural, religious, and so forth. It is also radically different from a biblical perspective—the Psalmist, while praying for God’s judgment to come upon his enemies places the responsibility for that judgment and any punishment in God’s hands; Jesus in Matthew 5:38ff (cf. Luke 6:27-36) is clear that his followers are to turn the other cheek and love their enemies; and Paul in Romans 12:14-21 says “bless those who persecute you”—no strings or conditions attached.
Clark’s section comes across as apologetic and theologically weak, with a great deal of eisegesis thrown in. There was little substance to his arguments beyond a message of be ‘good’ and ‘friendly’ and ‘loving’—all because of Jesus, of course, but mainly just because Jesus himself was a good guy who did good things for the poor and needy, and because he told us to ‘love our neighbours.’ His characterisation, made twice, of Jesus as “gentle Jesus meek and mild” was irritating (let alone biblically inaccurate), he assumes that Jesus’ divinity and humanity can be set against each other, and he strips Jesus of an authoritative and unique path of salvation, effectively disempowering the Christian community of having a compelling witness that Jesus offers a better, true way of living.
I felt that Kreimer was often grasping the wrong end of the stick, and the absence of Christ Messiah as fulfilment of the Law and ultimate demonstration of God’s love, was noticeable. For example, she suggests that in order to love God we must first love human beings, starting with those closest to us and then reaching outwards: her interpretation of how Aaron’s sons sinned (Leviticus 10:1-2 and Numbers 3:4) is that “The brothers Nadav [Nadab] and Avihu [Abihu] should have served each other first, then their extended family, then the Israelites, then the world, and then God.” Yet service and love of others that is not rooted and grounded in the love and service of God in grateful response for what He has first done for us is simply being morally good, and ultimately does not lead to transformed hearts and lives.
Each author provides arguments from their sacred texts as to why Muslims, Christians, and Jews should love, be hospitable and compassionate towards, and reach out to each other. They all rightly emphasise the need to acknowledge each other’s struggles, to listen to each other, and to suspend judgment. They want to see barriers broken down, communities transformed, and injustice fought against together. Sharing the tenets of each other’s faiths and sharing each other’s lives, as the authors have done in this book, are certainly part of this journey. While these aspects of the book are helpful, and will be impactful to varying degrees for different readers, what most people reading this review and the When Women Speak… website may be searching for are concrete and practical suggestions as to what we can do to build on commonalities or be involved in action together across the faith communities. Unfortunately, while the authors themselves are involved in interfaith dialogue and initiatives around the world, they do not elaborate much about what we can do beyond sharing lives, listening non-judgmentally, fighting injustice, and supporting the rights of the other. In the end, however, if this is the message which most average Muslims, Christians, and Jews need to hear and need to act on, that is a good thing.
(c) When Women Speak… July 2020
Louise currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband and two sons. She helps to equip cross-cultural workers and works as a researcher with When Women Speak… Louise and her family served in Southeast Asia for six years, where she taught English at universities and enjoyed engaging with her predominately Muslim students and colleagues. Her educational background was in Chinese studies, and she lived in China for three non-consecutive years. She has a PhD in East Asian Studies from the Australian National University.