Sister Sherry on the Baptism of Allam

Sister Sherry over at Intentional Disciples is not too excited (I think) about the baptism of Allam by the good Roman bishop. She says:


Historically, this sort of gesture has actually hamstrung the cause of the gospel in the Muslim world by exacerbating the enmity against those considering baptism, isolating converts from their natural social network, and making the price of conversion the loss of all family (including children) and friendship ties. The result: only the already marginalized became Christians and many didn't go the distance because the social isolation was too terrible to bear. The breakthrough happened when Christians stopped demanding individuals convert in a way that doomed them to isolation and started to work with whole families, tribes, and people groups.


With all due respect to her (and I really do respect her ministry, may God prosper it!), I think she is perhaps missing a couple of things which I want to point out. There is in the mission field of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) generally only the possibility of private baptism. A minister, the convert, and perhaps some people from the local church, if there is such a thing. A de facto baptism open to the public and where it is known in advance that one of the candidates is a Muslim is probably impossible, except maybe in Lebanon. So really comparing Rome with any of those cities is not sensible.

But will this bring persecution on the Christians in MENA? Well, the honest answer is they already have it. Living fearfully and sheepishly and hiding our lights under baskets is not the way of the Kingdom of God. Good for el papa. Let your light shine before man. Allam is a Christian now, and a son of the Catholic church. That is good news and we are to shout it from roof tops if at all possible. In Rome it is still, for now, possible. The day is coming when it may not be...

Christians in MENA will indeed live with this for years. They will live with the image of the best know Christian in the world baptizing a Muslim. It will give them hope. It will encourage other Muslims to convert. It will, in a few Muslims' minds, occasion the question, "What if I left?" Most of them have never even considered the possibility. Many of them don't even know that people DO leave Islam.

This is great news for the Catholic Church as well as the mission to Muslims. Muslims respect the Catholic Church and the pope because he is powerful. That is a language that they can understand. They know that he holds more sway around the world Christians than does any single person in Islam. They know he has a country of his own. They know his office is very ancient. These things, to the Muslim mind, and specifically to the Muslim Arab mind are often attractive. Becoming a non-denominational Christian with no clear affinity or relation to anyone else is not always appealing to a Muslim considering conversion.

So yes, will there be persecution? Of course, but at least this time it will be for a good and glorious reason: the public confession of faith of a Muslim hajji in the best-known church in the world on the holiest day of the year by that city's bishop.

Persecution will come, and marginalization from families is almost unavoidable, dear sister. Jesus knew this well--that his message would divide families, which is why he promised that anyone who left wife or children or brothers for him would receive ten thousands times more in the next life, and this life. Those thousands upon thousands of new brothers and sisters are me and you. Amen.

(PS: I don't see how this baptism of Allam means that the church is not working with peoples and tribes...)

Comments

Anonymous said…
Abu Daoud:

The issues that I was referring to in the last two paragraphs of my post have been seriously discussed among the foremost practioners in the field for nearly 40 years now. I was using short-hand since there didn’t seem to be a need to go into what is, for almost all readers, a really esoteric topic.

But with you, that’s obviously different. Clearly, some of my readers think that I am “buckling” under Muslim pressure. But that is reading our discussions and situation in the west into a very different situation which is every bit as relevant to this discussion as western fears of Eurabia. Charging into battle or cowardice are not the only two alternatives before us.

No one, least of me or the scholars and practitioners I am describing are denying that following Christ involves the risk of offending others. The risk involved for a Muslim to follow Christ is not going to go away, no matter what we do or don’t do. But what if there was real evidence that many more Muslims would hear, be open to, and believe the gospel if we didn’t insist upon converting people as individuals?

In a profoundly family-based culture, if an individual is baptized and then your parents disown you, your spouse divorces you, your children are taken away, your friends abandon you, you lose your job and your legal rights, you had few alternatives. If you were lucky, you could go and live in the western compound with the missionaries who gave you work and a place to sleep. But that just reinforced the deeply embedded assumption that becoming a Christian was to become “western” and cease to be Pakistani or Saudi or whatever. Because the converts had, so often, lost their place in their own culture and were forced to identify heavily with the culture of the western missionaries.

Another factor was that the members of ancient near eastern Christian churches that had survived centuries of Islamic rule, usually regarded (understandably) converts from Islam with great distrust. They assumed that they were spies for the government – and sometimes they were! (I have friends in the near east who have been “befriended” by government agents – it still happens.) The result: there was little or no community support for genuine converts except for the western missionaries. Unless you could actually form a community of Muslim Background Christians.

What some missionaries to the Muslim world in the 60’s and 70’s started to ask was this critical question: “Is the extreme isolation of our few Muslim converts and their resulting near complete dependence upon western missionaries one reason that the mission to the Muslim world showed extraordinarily little fruit after centuries of effort?

(For instance the great Samuel Zwemer, the “Apostle to Islam” saw less than a dozen converts after 40 years of heroic and brilliant labor in the first half of the 20th century. And his experience was normative rather than exceptional. No one, not St. Francis or the early Franciscan missionaries or Raymond Lull or Samuel Zwemer saw a significant national Christian community emerge from within the Muslim community in 8 centuries of mission until the 1960’s. A handful of individuals here and there but almost nothing else.

And they also noticed that many Muslims-turned-Christian were only marginal members of their culture and society to begin with – people with fewer ties to break to begin with – and afterward they weren’t effective witnesses because they had little credibility and lost almost all their natural relationships.

So they began to ask: Was there a way to go about evangelization that did not result in the crippling of their humanity and the loss of most of their relational and cultural ties for the new Christian? Where they could live in the midst of their family and community as a living witness that “one of us” could really be a follower of Jesus Christ?

So they started experimenting with approaches that were not highly individualistic as was normative in the west but respected the communal nature of the culture. For instance, in Pakistan, missionaries stopped trying to win individuals and starting working with whole family units and honoring the role of the family head. They started to see something previously unheard of: whole families being baptized together. Like in the book of Acts and in the early church. And then, whole villages.

Today, there are genuine “people movements” in parts of the Muslim world where tens of thousands of Muslim are coming to faith in Christ as a community. This may not seem large but it is the first time in 14 centuries of Christian-Muslim relationships that conversion have not all been one way: from Christianity into Islam. Because missionaries honored the deeply communal nature of the culture of the people with whom they were sharing the Gospel. And they have done it all quietly – no names, no specifics, allowing these Christians a chance to grow and be witnesses within their culture rather than become a global cause celebre and therefore, outcasts.

So there is real evidence that, in this case at least, the in-your-face-witness of marginalized individuals has not been one hundredth as fruitful. In the area of Muslim evangelization, the quiet conversion of families, rather than the heroic and public sufferings of isolated individuals, seems to be the seed of the church.

So back to Mallam’s baptism yesterday.

I support Mallam’s baptism. Obviously, he must follow his conscience in this matter. Since he is a public figure, his baptism would have public in any case. So there was no question of its being private as might happen in large parts of the near east.

A simple announcement that Mallam had become Catholic would have been sufficient and not generated many waves in the Muslim world because Mallam is not someone serious Muslims respect.

Mallam is not the sort of figure that is going to attract thoughtful, devout, reverent spiritually seeking Muslims of the best kind to Catholicism. He was a non-believing, non-practicing Muslim who has already outraged so many of the Muslim world’s norms that “apostasy” from Islam isn’t much of a surprise. It is the electronic image of the Pope being the instrument of that apostasy that was completely unnecessary.

There was no need to give his conversion undue global importance. Nor is it a good idea to make a man who has delighted in outraging the Islamic community an international symbol of what it means for a Muslim to become a Christian by making him one of only seven people that Pope Benedict baptized personally.

Sherry Weddell
Abu Daoud said…
Dear Sherry,

Thank you for the thoughtdul and well-reasoned response to my response to your notes on the Allam baptism.

Just a few comments:

1) I am quite aware of the early limitations of missions to Muslims and I agree that the "mission compound" mentality was in some ways not ideal. But honestly, there has never been an ideal missionary stance. They did the best they could with what they had and if they did their work out of genuine love then God blessed it, even with small fruit. I often think that today when we see the trickle turning into a small stream (in terms of MBB's) much of that was because they had to clear the rocks from the field before anyone could even break up the soil, which was before anyone could plant.

2) I agree that in MENA we should always prefer the conversion and baptism of an entire family or tribal unit. You are are right that this does happen in some places, but culture is becoming more individualistic in MENA, thanks largely to the West and globalization. So yes, family is very important, but not so much as it used to be. Much of this depends on the setting: urban or agrarian.

3) In the case of Allam, his family is already Catholic. So we can hardly say he is being individualistic. Are you saying he should have returned to Egypt to try to evangelize his family and hope that they could all be baptized together?

4) Sometimes there is a question of conscience: the MBB wants to return home to share the Gospel with his family, but he knows this places him in a dangerous situation, perhaps he will be killed. Should he not be baptized prior to his return?

I offer plenty of hypotheticals, mostly related to real cases that I and others whom I work with have encountered.

In the end Islam relies of coercion and fear to enforce its rules. Once enough Muslims leave Islam and say, we are leaving Islam, and once enough Christians stand up to say, hey we are supporting these people, then the coercion by fear will break down, and we will see, "the captives set free."

(Incidentally I am now working on a paper regarding baptism and mission to Muslims! Will let you know when that is published.)
John Stringer said…
First, I think we should also see this baptism in the context of the Roman Catholic dialogue with Muslim scholars; the pope makes utterly clear from the outset that the basics of the Christian faith are absolute and not open for amending in any form of dialogue.

Secondly, I am also very glad with this public statement by this Magdi. Arab Muslims are not used to seeing anythig of this. I believe there is great power in this public testimony.

Thirdly, indeed there is a long-standing debate about individualism and people movements in the Muslim World, indeed. Here in the Arab World, this debate is mostly one of missionaries only, as the churches here reject the concept.
Sherry W said…
Abu Doud:

Thanks for your gracious, thoughtful response:

AD: But honestly, there has never been an ideal missionary stance.

SW: I don’t think anyone is talking about an ideal here. But there is such a thing as demonstrably better. Of course, the great pioneers were doing the best they knew and God honored it and their efforts set the stage for what came later. But it wasn’t simply more effort that started to make the difference. It was, I believe, Holy Spirit-inspired wisdom, as they prayed and wrestled with the realities in front of them and realized that the classic frontal assault (preaching in the marketplace like Raymond Lull or the early Franciscans) or working with a few individuals (like Samuel Zwemer) wasn’t particularly fruitful and in many ways, was actually hindering the development of a true Christian community.

AD: I often think that today when we see the trickle turning into a small stream (in terms of MBB's) much of that was because they had to clear the rocks from the field before anyone could even break up the soil, which was before anyone could plant.

SW: I would agree, if by clearing the rocks you include figuring out what doesn’t work and coming up with insights that effectively open the door to new possibilities. It wasn’t just doing more of the same thing with yet greater ardor. It was doing new, more productive things with great faith and ardor.

Ad: I agree that in MENA we should always prefer the conversion and baptism of an entire family or tribal unit. You are right that this does happen in some places, but culture is becoming more individualistic in MENA, thanks largely to the West and globalization. So yes, family is very important, but not so much as it used to be. Much of this depends on the setting: urban or agrarian.



SW: Of course. Everything depends upon the context to which God has called or led you.

AD: In the case of Allam, his family is already Catholic. So we can hardly say he is being individualistic. Are you saying he should have returned to Egypt to try to evangelize his family and hope that they could all be baptized together?



SW: As I have said already several times: I welcome Allam’s baptism. Really. Truly. As an individual, he should absolutely be welcomed with open arms and he and his family supported generously.

But that could have been done lovingly and well a thousand different ways – none of which required that his face and story blanket the globe within hours of his reception. Being baptized did not require that he become the poster-boy for Muslims considering Christianity and there were a number of obvious reasons why he isn’t a great candidate for poster boydom and may actually be counter-productive.

Apart from the geo-religious-political implications, all this publicity could actually hamper his spiritual growth and that of his family. Being a trophy convert is often not a good thing for one’s actual process of conversion.

Here’s the deal. No one, obscure or famous, gets baptized by the Pope during the Easter Vigil accidentally. And I didn’t notice Vatican spokesman offering comments and clarifications about the other 6 adults baptized in the same liturgy. Someone (and I don’t know who it was) decided to use a globally streamed event watched by hundreds of millions to transform an *individual act of conscience* into a *global phenomena*. It is the wisdom of that decision *alone* that I question.

By now, we all know the power of the wall-to-wall 24/7 media for good and for bad. I was simply pointing out that there were all kinds of “unintended effects” when you do something like this. They were not intended but many were clearly foreseeable - like the fact that jihadists will use this image to spin their myth of the great “crusade” and that can cause a ton of additional grief for various Christian communities in the Muslim world. And what is the great good to be achieved that out-weighs these very real possibilities for real people?
I don't think that question was thought through carefully enough.

AD: Sometimes there is a question of conscience: the MBB wants to return home to share the Gospel with his family, but he knows this places him in a dangerous situation, perhaps he will be killed. Should he not be baptized prior to his return? 


SW: Of course, every situation has to be judged in its complexity. I would never argue against baptism if a person is ready – but I hardly think that part of the plan is to make sure that your MBB goes on CNN to alert the world to his decision to be baptized *before* he returns home.

AD: Once enough Muslims leave Islam and say, we are leaving Islam, and once enough Christians stand up to say, hey we are supporting these people, then the coercion by fear will break down, and we will see, "the captives set free."



SW: And as we have seen, the first real step toward that goal of true freedom of conscience, required working in obscurity within the norms of the local culture rather than a classic head-on challenge based upon western assumptions and values.

Blessings on you and yours, Abu Daoud!
Abu Daoud said…
(There is a whole new post on this at Islamdom.blogspot.com, so go to that thread for further comments.)

Sherry from Intentional Disciples and I have been having an ongoing debate about this topic for all of two days. I think we have established that in many respects we are actually in agreement. So I think the main topic at this point is regarding the prudence of this specific act: was it the wisest and most prudent path for Benedict to baptize this particular Muslim on Easter at St. Petersburg?

I think there that Sherry would answer NO. But my answer is Yes. So let me address this specific topic instead of trading in hypotheticals, which is what we have been doing until now.

1) It was wise because this man has been thinking about converting for years. This is not a sudden decision or something that has not had forethought. He said it himself if you read the articles. This is important.

2) It is right because the man lives in Rome. Benedict is the bishop of Rome and thus the senior or chief pastor of that city--even Protestants and evangelicals must agree with this. It is therefore good and right for him to baptize new Christians.

3) Mr. Allam is already a public figure. He is a journalist and knows how to deal with publicity and questions about his motives and positions. This is very important because it means that he is in an excellent position to be an apologist/evangelist for his new faith. Many MBB's are very sincere and godly, but do not know how to adequately explain their motives and reasons--this man does and has.

4) It is good because it is a claim of solidarity with MBB's by the pope. By taking this action Benedict has decidedly cast his lot--within the context of further dialogue with Muslims--with the converts. He is this carrying on the heritage of JPII and his proclamation that evangelistic mission is and always must be at the heart of the church's ministry (read Missio Redemptoris by JPII if you haven't already). He is also saying quite clearly that he is willing to suffer the odium and persecution of the shari'a with Muslim apostates.

5) It is good and right because it will give hope to Christians throughout MENA. Some might say that the Christians in MENA will be persecuted because of this. Guess what? They are persecuted either way and every day, several times, they hear resounding from the minaret that 'there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet' which means, yes, that the Christian faith is useless and empty. They are used to it. I am used to it. Here is a secret, small glimpse of hope for them. That thought they hear this message called out day after day that someone has said, "NO: Muhammad is not his prophet." And that the most influential Christian in the world has fellowship with this man.

For these reasons, and others, I think that BXVI's act of baptizing brother Allam on Easter in St. Peter's was a good and right thing to do--and more than that, prudent and wise.

The persecution against Christians in MENA is already here--this will give them hope and strength to withstand it.

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