All America and the entire civilized world mourn the brutal execution of Hoosier Peter Kassig by Islamic State barbarians. President Barack Obama expressed our outrage, Gov. Mike Pence honored Kassig by ordering flags be at half-staff.
As this tragedy unfolded, a Christian-on-Christian controversy also emerged: The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., allowed an Islamic worship service to be conducted in its building for the first time in its history. Hailed by many Christians as a high-
water mark of interfaith comity, it has also been condemned by many Christians as compromising the witness and purpose of a Christian place of worship.
First, some background: The National Cathedral is the largest church structure in Washington, the second-largest in the United States and the sixth-largest in the world. Its construction began in 1907 and was completed in 1990, although it was in use by World War I. It has no formal, legal or official relationship with the federal government. It is owned, operated and managed by the Episcopalian Church and serves as one of its cathedrals.
It was always designed to serve purposes beyond the sectarian interest of its controlling denomination. At the 1990 dedication, then-President George H.W. Bush characterized the church as a “symbol of our nation’s spiritual life.”
To this end it has been used for numerous national events, such as state funerals and as a place of public prayer by our nation’s leaders after the 9/11 tragedy. No one questions the cathedral’s legal right to allow an Islamic service. But should Christians approve of the decision?
I say yes and not just because I am Episcopalian. We Christians make a claim about Jesus of Nazareth that is heretical to Muslims. Muslims honor Jesus as a great prophet, born of a virgin but deny he is the incarnation of God or that he serves a unique role in bringing salvation to mankind.
The Muslim view and Christian view of Jesus are incompatible. I will always think my Muslim friends are wrong on this point — and I also think the point matters — and my Muslim friends will feel the same albeit in an opposite way. This seems to me as a given but is basically irrelevant to the issue.
The issue is how should Muslims and Christians interact? At one
extreme we see Islamic State
forces destroying Christian churches in Iraq. It is precisely these
actions that were thoroughly
rebuked at the worship service
at the Cathedral.
A video of the service is archived at the cathedral’s website, and after watching the entire service, I got the sense that its main purpose was to witness to the world that American Muslims roundly, sincerely and overwhelmingly condemn the current evils being done in the name of their faith. I encourage those who are troubled by
the service to watch it and judge for yourself.
In 637 A.D., Jerusalem fell to Muslim armies. The new ruler, Caliph Umar, was touring the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the invitation of the Christian Patriarch Sophronius. During the visit, the Muslim time for prayer arrived, and Sophronius invited Umar to
drop his prayer rug in the church and pray.
Umar insisted he pray outside the church, not because he thought it an unholy place, but because he wanted to affirm it as a Christian church. In a similar vein, the service at the National Cathedral was held in a side chapel, not the main worship space, to send a similar message: The visitors were not trying to “take over” the cathedral. Rather, the organizers, Christians and Muslim, were trying to bear witness to a better way for Muslim and Christian interactions to proceed: with mutual respect.
Peter Kassig converted to Islam before his untimely death. Should our outrage, grief or sorrow at his death be different had he been of another faith? I think not. I hope you agree.