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What Is the Most Important Religion Story for 2009?

When the Washington Post “On Faith” editor asked his panelists to write about what they thought was the most important religion story of 2009, I quickly concluded that the most important issue for EthicsDaily.com was the emerging, embryonic relationship between Baptists and Muslims.

 

Other issues had received significant news and opinion attention. But no other issue was as organizationally energizing and absorbing as the dynamic between these two members of the Abrahamic faith tradition.

 

Beyond EthicsDaily.com’s focus, one may argue that Baptist-Muslim engagement is the most unanticipated and underreported religion story of 2009, especially if one factors in its far-reaching potential to advance the common good. Time will soon determine whether it is a fool’s errand or a fullness-of-time movement.

 

The story began in January with a three-day meeting in Boston between 40 Baptist leaders and 40 Muslim leaders. Papers were presented. Prayers were said. Meals were shared. Business cards were exchanged. Promises for follow-up steps were made.

 

Also in January, the Baptist World Alliance, the largest global Baptist body, released its official response to the Islamic letter known as “A Common Word Between Us and You.”

 

Two months later, the BWA dedicated a baptismal center on the Jordan River where John the Baptist is thought to have baptized Jesus. The land was a gift from the Jordanian government, facilitated by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad, who is the chief architect of the “Common Word” initiative.

 

On the July 4th weekend in Washington, D.C., well-known Baptist preacher Rick Warren spoke at the annual meeting of the Islamic Society of North America.

 

Off the public radar was another development. EthicsDaily.com was invited in late January to produce an hour-long documentary on Christians and Muslims that would air on ABC-TV stations in early 2010. Having videotaped the summit in Boston, we had some footage. But we knew that listening to academicians and others reading manuscripts at a podium would be of little real interest. We launched a vigorous research effort and decided to sharpen the focus from Christians and Muslims to Baptists and Muslims in the U.S.

 

Through our network of Baptist colleagues, we soon discovered stories that deserved reporting. David Goatley, executive secretary-treasurer of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, told us about a story along the Texas-Louisiana border. Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, shared with us about initiatives in Oklahoma. Carol Richardson, associate pastor of First Baptist Church, Memphis, gave us a heads-up about an upcoming event at her church.

 

Beginning on Jan. 3, ABC-TV stations will start airing our documentary, “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims.”

 

At the heart of our documentary is the recognition that Baptists and Muslims have different sacred books but a common word—love thy neighbor. The documentary tells five stories about Muslims and Baptists who pursue neighbor love through interfaith dialogue and interfaith action, stories that will surprise viewers.

 

These stories run counter to the dominant attitude among Baptist clergy toward Muslims. Too many Baptist preachers in America demonize the Prophet Muhammad and smear Muslims as terrorists, fearing Islam as a dangerous religion. Other fearful clerics avoid hate talk. Instead, they talk about the need to win Muslims to Jesus as the only way to relate to them.

 

We take another approach. We believe the Bible calls us to love our neighbors, not as a means of conversion, but because it’s the right thing to do. And the right thing for goodwill Baptists to do is to speak up for Muslims in our culture of anger and to reach out with a hand of partnership.

 

Our documentary is about replacing the negative narratives with positive ones. We hope it will bring Baptists and Muslims together on the local level for conversations and community-building. If Muslims and Baptists are peacemakers together in the United States, then they will show the rest of the world a better way forward.

 

By allocation of staff time and financial resources, the most important religion story of 2009 for EthicsDaily.com has been Muslim-Baptist engagement.

 

We are not the only ones who prioritize the importance of this story, however.

 

An unscientific online survey at the Odyssey Network ranked the Baptist-Muslim search for common ground as its top interfaith story of 2009. Established in 1987, the Odyssey Network is “a service of the National Interfaith Cable Coalition.”

 

To learn more about the airtimes for “Different Books, Common Word” or to pre-order the documentary, go to www.differentbookscommonword.com.

 

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.  This editorial appeared originally on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” Web page in a shorter and different version.