Same God?

December 17th, 2015

When people make claims that Christians and Muslims, or Christians and Jews, or Christians and Zoroastrians, Samaritans, Mormons or Hindus do or do not worship “the same God,” they are usually not speaking theologically. They are speaking rhetorically.

Larycia Hawkins

Franklin Graham repeated a tired trope about the difference between the God of Islam and the God of Christianity. He was responding to the suspension of Professor Larycia Hawkins for wearing a hijab and making comments about solidarity with Muslims. He said that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God, because the God of Christianity has a Son, Jesus Christ.

The flaw with that reasoning is that by that logic, Christians do not worship the same God as Jews, either. Jews do not believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, therefore we must not worship the same God.

If Franklin Graham had to pick between fetishizing Judaism and demonizing Islam, I think that might be a tough choice.

Generally when we talk theology, we talk about the nature and character of the God we agree exists. How do we understand God’s sovereignty? How do we understand free will and predestination in light of that sovereignty? What do we mean when we say, “God is love?” What does incarnation mean? What is the effect of prayer? These are all conversations we can have with people of Abrahamic faiths.

But when I say, “You and I don’t worship the same God,” I’m no longer making a claim about theology. I’m no longer talking about the nature and character of God. I’m talking about you. I’m saying you are damned, and I am not. You are not like me, and our difference is more than clothes and customs — it goes down to the soul. You are mistaken about the fundamental nature of reality. You are less, and I am more. I must increase, and you must decrease.

In the early days of Christian persecution, followers of Jesus were sometimes declared “atheists” by religious pagans. Christians didn’t worship a pantheon of gods, and they made claims about divinity and humanity that seemed blasphemous. When Paul showed up at Mars Hill (Acts 17:23) and claimed that the God of Jesus Christ was what the Athenians called “an unknown god,” he must have sounded like a new age kook. He even appropriated a pagan poet’s words, saying that God was the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (17:28).

Can you imagine how a pagan fundamentalist might have responded to Paul? “No, you and I don’t worship the same God. You believe in a single supreme being with only one Son. We believe in a whole community of gods with multiple children.” Same God? Baloney. We have a word for that: “syncretism.”

This kind of religious exclusivism is one of the hallmarks of the so-called Islamic State as well. Muslims who do not believe in the ideology of a new caliphate are declared apostate. If you are not an extremist, you do not believe in the same God.

This is the rhetoric of “us and them” that justifies violence, and we have seen it enough that we should be familiar with it. For centuries it ravaged Europe. It ravaged Northern Ireland as Protestants and Catholics counted coup and made tit-for-tat killings to balance the scales of injustice.

Let me be clear: I do not think religion causes violence. But I think leaders use religious rhetoric to justify violence. I think they lay the groundwork by establishing in-groups and out-groups, those who are abominations and those who are God’s chosen people. If “they” do not worship the same God, it becomes just one more reason they need to go.

There is no question that there are theological differences between Christianity, Islam and Judaism. We do make specific claims about the incarnation of Christ and the nature of sin, suffering and salvation. Yet it is a straw-man fallacy to say that acknowledging our common religious claims about God is wishy-washy universalism, or that “all roads lead to heaven.”

Even so, one of the most powerful parables Jesus ever tells is the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Muggers rob a man and leave him to die by the side of the road. As Jesus tells the story, he heightens the tension as first a priest, then a Levite, avoid getting involved. His listeners would have been shocked when Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of his story. Samaritans were ancient enemies of his people. They disagreed on the proper location of worship and the history of God’s people. Both Jews and Samaritans thought of themselves as “chosen people,” and for one of them to be right, the other had to be wrong. By making a Samaritan the hero of his story, who obviously did the will of God in loving his neighbor, Jesus was making a cutting social commentary: God loves, and expects us to love, the people we hate — even if they have different ideas about God.

I believe Jesus Christ, very God of very God, is the ultimate expression of God’s repudiation of our sinful religious rhetoric. From his own mouth, he makes this point again and again. Who stops to help the least of these on the side of the road? A Samaritan, a religious and ethnic outsider. Who enters the kingdom of heaven before the religious leaders? Tax collectors and prostitutes. Who constantly misses out, gets it wrong, and resembles whitewashed tombs more than springs of living water? Religious leaders.

In the cross, God exposes religious mendacity for what it is: a sham used by the powerful to exploit the weak, a way to gin up hatred against marginalized people, a farce that will sell out the children of God who dare to be peacemakers. Jesus tells it to us straight: The powers that be will persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely. They will even fire you for wearing a hijab.

Were it not for these words and deeds of Jesus Christ, I could never be a Christian, because religious leaders drive me nuts. When I read the words of Franklin Graham, I don’t want to know his God. I might even say that he and I worship a different God, and we must follow a different Jesus.

Except that I can’t help think about this story that Jesus told: If I were Muslim dying on the side of the road, who would be the last person that I would expect would stop and help me? And I know the answer to that question is Franklin Graham.

And if he did, I’d know we worship the same God.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

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