Former Congressman and Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Siljander has addressed kings, high-level clerics and top academics across the globe about his ideas for bridging the gap between Christians and Muslims.
While he's more accustomed to bending the ears of potentates, pontiffs, professors and policy-makers, he made his first-ever public appearance to promote his ideas last week before a group of socially conscious Tulsans, packed standing-room-only into the Governor's Room of the downtown Summit Club.
Toting his new book--A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman's Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide, Siljander explained how, according to his studies, the two religions aren't so different after all.
Jerry Dillon, who organized the event, told UTW that the ideas espoused by Siljander are needed to combat the ignorance and Islamophobia he said certain "redneck Oklahoma leaders" recently displayed in "rejecting the gift of the Quran," referencing state Rep. Rex Duncan, R-Sand Springs, and 34 other lawmakers who turned down complimentary copies of the Oklahoma Centennial Quran, offered by the Governor's Ethnic American Advisory Council (for full details, see "Books like White Elephants" in the Nov. 8-14 issue of UTW at www.urbantulsa.com).
As active members of their churches and of the local Rotary Club, Dillon and the other organizers summoned listeners from their seemingly inexhaustible well of friends and acquaintances, as well as members of the media, to hear the diplomat speak.
Siljander explained that his "spiritual journey" began 15 years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast, when he was a Republican congressman from Michigan.
The self-deprecating former lawmaker recounted, "I was trained as an evangelical Christian; I was a poster boy for Jerry Falwell."
As such, Siljander was incensed when the Quran was read at the Breakfast, prompting him to fire-off an angry letter to the emcee, demanding, "How can you read the book of the devil at a prayer breakfast?"
It was also during this period that he met Nassim Matar, a Lebanese-born, Washington, D.C.-based real estate broker.
The two are longtime friends, but Matar, who introduced him at last week's event, explained that their friendship had a bit of a rocky start.
"Mark had a different view of being a Christian," he said, a fact he discovered after having Siljander over for dinner.
Matar is a professing Christian himself, from a Greek Orthodox background, but his wife is Muslim, which led to some interesting conversation with the self-proclaimed Falwellite.
"He wanted to explain to my wife that 'You can't just love Jesus as a Muslim; you have to convert,'" said Matar.
"He told my wife that she and her entire family will go to hell. So, we avoided Mark Siljander for the next two years," he added.
Siljander characterized the perceived faux pas as part of his "misaligned but well-intended strategy" as an evangelical Christian--a strategy he began to question after his angry post-Prayer Breakfast letter.
Through the course of his exchange with the National Prayer Breakfast host, Siljander said the reader from "the devil's book" challenged him to find passages in the New Testament requiring Christians to convert non-Christians.
After a lengthy search, Siljander recalled, "I could not find one verse in the entire New Testament that ever suggested we should convert anyone to any religion."
It was then, he said, that he realized that he'd come by his ideas about converting non-Christians from a merely cultural point of view, not because he'd learned it from the Bible.
To further explore what "cultural misunderstandings" he had regarding Christianity and its relationship to Islam, Siljander began to study the Peshitta--a 4th Century Aramaic translation of the New Testament.
While the books comprising the New Testament were originally written in Greek (although comments by the 4th Century Palestinian bishop and church historian Eusebius could be taken to suggest "Matthew" was originally penned in Aramaic), the language spoken by Jesus Christ and the rest of 1st Century Jewish society was, of course, Aramaic, as Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" brought to the general movie-going public's attention.
While he admittedly is not a trained linguist, nor a theologian, Siljander said studying the teachings of Christ in the language in which they were originally spoken opened his eyes to countless other cultural accretions resulting from Christians taking 1st Century Jewish idioms too literally.
For instance, he said, "What about when Jesus said, 'I have not come to bring peace, but a sword; for I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother... a man's enemies will be the members of his own household'?"
As Siljander explained, in its Aramaic idiomatic context, a "sword" was understood to be an instrument of division, and as Jesus' teachings are passed down from parents to children, conflict will inevitably result, which he likened to a recent instance within his own family when he argued with his teenaged son about going to a party where there would be alcohol, resulting in a temporary division between them while his son sulked in his room that evening.
Along with his studies of the Peshitta, Siljander said he also began to study the Quran for the first time.
"I found out that Jesus was mentioned in the Quran 110 times, either directly or indirectly, and there was not a single word about Jesus that was horrible, disgraceful or, in my opinion, inconsistent with what the Bible says about him," he said.
However, the diplomat said there remain three teachings about Jesus in the Quran that Christians cannot accept and that keep Muslims from regarding Christianity as a valid religion.
But, because of the close relationship between the Semitic languages of Aramaic and Arabic (the language of the Quran), Siljander said he's discovered "bridges to common ground on these three critical issues."
The first is that the Quran teaches that Jesus cannot be the "begotten Son of God" because, according to the 112th Surah, "Allah... begets not, nor is He begotten."
In the Arabic, he said, the word "walid" is translated as "begotten," which literally means, "birthed from him," suggesting to Muslims that, according to their understanding of Christianity, Jesus was conceived by a sexual union between God and Mary, which, Siljander explained, is not how the New Testament describes Jesus' virgin conception.
Also, the Quran denounces the Christian concept of the Trinity as the worship of three different gods, rather than the worship of Allah as the true and only God.
While the separate concepts of "God," "Messiah" and "Holy Spirit" are common to both religions, Siljander said the word "trinity" is only a man-made word used by Christians as a collective label for those concepts, and since it's not found anywhere in the New Testament, Christians should set it aside for the sake of relating to Muslims.
"Don't throw it away, but set it aside," he said.
Finally, the divinity of Jesus is a critical point of contention between the two religions, Siljander said.
"Things like eating and defecating and dying are, in the eyes of Muslims, beyond the majesty of Allah," he said.
However, while admittedly not a trained theologian, Siljander said, in his view, it was not "God" who died when Jesus was crucified, but only his human nature, which puts Muslims and Christians "90 percent in agreement" on that particular point.
(Actually, the 157th verse of the Quran's 4th Surah denies that Jesus was even crucified or killed, but Siljander didn't address that point.)
As the veteran-diplomat-turned-amateur-scholar implied, once the original teachings of the two religions are properly understood, the differences between them are no greater than the differences between the multitude of different Christian denominations.
Siljander touted these notions as "paradigm crashing," and said he hopes they will "create a movement, a dynamic" resulting in small groups throughout both the Christian and Muslim worlds who will meet to study these ideas and advance them.
He related past successes at fostering positive relationships with Muslims through the sharing of these ideas, most notably as an emissary to the Sudanese government since May of 2006, mediating the Darfur conflict on behalf of the U.N.
After days of discussions with Sudan's President Omar al Bashir, Siljander said the ruler introduced him to his religious and political advisors, who then invited him and his delegation to speak at the Khartoum Shari'a Law School.
"It opened up amazing doors," Siljander said.
"We were the first white American Christians to speak on a Friday afternoon at the Khartoum mosque. That happened, not because we're so good looking, but because we built bridges of respect," he added.
He said the Al Bashir and his advisors still regarded him and all Christians as "infidels," but the ruler had gained a greater appreciation for westerners and for Christianity, giving Siljander an opportunity to mediate afforded to few, if any other Americans in the region.
Siljander might have created more common ground between Muslims and Christians than he intended, though, as the Sudanese sheikh isn't the only one to regard him as an infidel.
"How can the spirit of Christ have fellowship with the spirit of the antichrist?" said one woman last week during the question-and-answer session that followed the presentation.
Obviously a professing Christian, the woman stated that both the Quran and the Bible cannot both be "the word of God," and that the ideas contained therein are not compatible.
She said her Egyptian-born husband, Magdy Fam, has worked as a missionary to Muslims in the Middle East and, like Siljander, has written books about his experience and learning.
Based on those experiences and studies, she said "all Christians should love all Muslims," that doesn't mean they should trivialize the differences between Islam and Christianity.
Another professing Christian listed off a few New Testament verses regarding the conversion of non-believers, which Siljander apparently overlooked in his search several years ago, drawing particular attention to requirements for baptism and Jesus' statements that a person must be "born again."
Not everything Siljander said was completely unpalatable to the Christians gathered to hear him, though.
One audience member asked him if he believed the so-called "Gospel of Inclusion."
Also known as "universalism," but repackaged by Tulsa's controversial Bishop Carlton Pearson as the "Gospel of Inclusion," the teaching in question asserts that all people, regardless of religious affiliation, are saved from hell because of Christ's crucifixion.
Siljander answered, "You'll have to forgive my ignorance about the 'gospel of inclusion,' but the scripture says that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life, and that there's no salvation apart from him."
Dillon, who is also a longtime friend of Siljander, told UTW that he also doesn't fully accept everything the ambassador said.
He said he hadn't had time to compose his thoughts so he could elaborate, but said, "I have several issues I'm not certain about."
Dillon said he plans to read Siljander's new book, though, with the hope that those uncertainties will be resolved.
In response to the objections of many of his fellow Christians, Kevin Jordan, who helped Dillon organize the event, commended Siljander for his efforts to find common ground between Christians and Muslims.
"To get up and beat someone with a Bible and get them to say the sinner's prayer--that's not going to save them. It's about building relationships, and that's what Mark's talking about," he said.
Also in attendance was Jamal Miftah, who was expelled from the Islamic Society of Tulsa's mosque last year after he wrote an op-ed piece condemning Islamic terrorism.
He said it's important that leaders of both communities speak out against violence and look for ways to foster constructive dialogue, as Siljander was doing.
Since the recent "Qurangate" debacle at the state Capitol (referenced above by Dillon) likely fueled at least some of the considerable interest in the topic of Siljander's presentation, it's worth pointing out recent comments by Miftah's wife, Nageena Shahnaz, in response to the press conference held by the IST to condemn Duncan and others' refusal of the Quran, as reported on the blog of UTW's esteemed columnist Michael Bates, at www.batesline.com.
"Please come and talk to us and find out why my husband was declared anti-Islamic, anti-Muslim in the very same place (the so-called Al Salaam Mosque) where Mr. Duncan and his fellows are now being condemned for refusing to accept Quran because of passiveness shown by the Muslim leadership when it comes to condemning terrorism or taking practical steps to stop terrorist activities," she wrote in an e-mail to Bates, intended for publication on his blog.
After Siljander made his appearance in Tulsa, he traveled to Washington, D.C. where he presented his ideas to 30 of the nation's top Islamic leaders.
In the past, he's lectured on this topic at the Vatican, Oxford University, Edinburgh University, and before government leaders in Sudan, Libya and other Islamic nations.
Meanwhile, the seeds of his hoped-for movement have been planted in Tulsa, as Dillon told UTW that he and a handful of others plan to meet in the future for further discussion of Siljander's ideas.
Share this article: