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Culture Q&A

Matthew Kaemingk

A space for freedom

Offering hospitality to Muslims in America

A space for freedom

Matthew Kaemingk (Handout)

What’s a nice theologian doing in the middle of a political debate? Matthew Kaemingk, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, is the author of Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (Eerdmans, 2018). He says Biblical understanding on immigration “should spring from the actual work of Jesus, who made space for me when I was His enemy.” We met at a Center for Public Justice panel discussion in Washington, D.C., and then continued the conversation via Skype. Here are edited excerpts:

Since your book came out in January, you’ve been on the road talking about this hot topic. Any lightning strikes along the way?

I’ve received critiques from both sides, left and right. But overall I sense a yearning, particularly among Christian audiences, beyond right and left: If you boil the debate down to simply “Do you open doors or do you close them?”—that’s not a helpful debate. The real discussions and hard questions are about how do we live together once differences are already inside the home.

You write about multiculturalism on the left and nationalism on the right, but you also present a third way. What’s that?

The third way acknowledges that the political right is very correct, that Muslim immigration presents real challenges to the West. The left is correct that Muslim immigrants are human beings with rights, dignity, and freedom. Christian pluralism says if Christ is King, that means Christians are not. I do not have the right to exclude, demonize, or forcibly assimilate Muslim communities. Christ is King over the mosque, and it’s Christ who will make those judgments.

‘Let’s think less about face-to-face theological debates or interfaith dialogues, and more about having one another over for food, working together, caring for one another’s sick.’

How does Abraham Kuyper help us think about Christian pluralism and a third way?

Kuyper was a Christian theologian and politician 120 years ago in the Netherlands. The nation was bitterly divided between Protestants and Catholics, socialists and liberals, yet he developed a theological case for treating others with justice. Not because other ideologies were true or deserving, but because God demands that we treat our opponents with love.

You spent time researching Muslim immigration in the Netherlands. What did you learn from the Dutch secularist responses to Islam?

Secular liberals tend to misunderstand faith in three ways. They believe faith is a private preference not relevant to the public debate. Second, they believe that faith is a special thing only for some people, and they themselves have risen above faith. So they create a hierarchy of all the religions down here and the liberals up here. This makes it impossible for them to treat religious minorities with justice because they believe they have transcended religion and faith. They cannot see their own faith-based foundations. Third, they believe we can be united through government-run education and awareness programs.

Kuyper was perhaps ahead of his time in reflecting with some concern on Islam’s “summons to holy war.” How do you address the real fears Americans have about Islam after 9/11 and other attacks?

Bringing up the threats and real challenges with Islam does not make you a racist or a bigot. It’s important to challenge Muslims on those issues. But in Christian theology we believe all of us are created with certain value and rights that we didn’t earn and we cannot lose. We don’t offer freedom to Muslims because we think they earned it. We offer it because our God demands it.

I often get questions like this: In Muslim countries Christians are not given religious freedom, so why should we give religious freedom to them? That is a fundamental misunderstanding of a Christian approach to democracy and freedom. Christ offers us freedom, dignity, and love as free gifts, not on trade or contract.

And therein is the risk.

Democracy is fundamentally a risk. Kuyper specifically speaks to the possibility that a nation could be taken over by an ideology wanting to crush you. He says, “Leave it to Christian believers, if need be to Christian martyrs, to have the honor of demonstrating the intrinsic emptiness of non-Christian spiritual life.”

It’s one thing if you and I say we are willing to take the risk, but should we take that risk for our children and grandchildren?

As Christians we don’t want to be transformed by our enemies or by fear, we want to be transformed by Christ. It’s tempting to try to “solve Islam” through government power, but that government machinery can be turned around on Christianity as well.

You seem to leave us no alternative but to practice hospitality to Muslim neighbors. How do we begin?

Hospitality should be practiced much the same way we practice the piano. We will do it badly at first, but we do it over and over again, practicing life alongside our Muslim neighbors. So let’s think less about face-to-face theological debates or interfaith dialogues, and more about having one another over for food, working together, caring for one another’s sick. Here’s where Christ comes in. Christ is our model of hospitality in that He opens His arms on the cross at great personal pain and great personal sacrifice. He is not romantic about hospitality, but He is with us. He shows up in those small moments of having coffee with a neighbor, fellow student, or friend.

Do you think this radical view of hospitality can affect our political discourse and engagement?

As a theologian I think of myself as a servant of the church, so I work really hard not to give specific political advice.

That’s why I’m asking you.

It’s important for pastors and theologians not to dictate political policy but to empower Christian citizens to think Christianly about politics. I want to provide the Biblical framework for wrestling with these tough political issues, but the decisions are going to be different in different places. Issues like the Syrian refugee crisis require good theology, but also political awareness and wisdom.

What do you hope American Christians take from this book?

My hope is that American Christians would think of Muslim immigration not as a problem to be overcome but as a profound opportunity to be grasped. Their Muslim neighbors are not an issue to be resolved, but people to be loved. This is a unique historical moment in which the church has the opportunity to be the church, the hands and feet of Jesus, to share the hospitality we’ve received.


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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Wed, 08/08/2018 07:02 am

    Lots of good stuff here to mull over. I especially like the last paragraph and agree that with so many areas of the world closed to missionaries taking the Gospel there, we have a unique opportunity since so many are coming to the States from these “closed” countries. They are here for education or other reasons and present us with quite the opportunity to reach out in Jesus’s name. I’m not sure this is a “unique historical moment” but it certainly is an opportunity. Immigration as a political and Church issue has always been there. Neither institution has done a great job handling it. But we can love our neighbor and cloth ourselves with heart felt humility and reach out.

  •  MIKE ROZMUS's picture
    Posted: Fri, 08/10/2018 09:55 pm

    I think that this interview is fuzzy-headed, avoiding discussion of the tough choices.

    The Bible unequivocally commands Israelites in the Old Testament and followers of Jesus in the New Testament to be kind, just, and generous to aliens/sojourners/strangers:

    The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:34, NAS)

    Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For … I was a stranger and you welcomed me ….’ (Matthew 25:34-36, ESV)

    There are many more verses supporting this teaching. Certainly, today’s Muslim refugees from the war-torn countries of the Middle East are Biblical “strangers” to Western civilization, and we are called to love them. But this compelling Biblical prescription has compelling Biblical context:

    1. The Biblical prescription to love refugees calls for personal, face-to-face love that promotes assimilation into the body of believers in the one true God – not merely actions or policies that make their life easier.
    2. The God of the Bible is an exclusive, holy, and jealous God who demands the obedience of both His people and the strangers among them.

    In the Old Testament, Ruth, the alien Moabite who became the wife of an Israelite and served her mother-in-law even after her husband had died, is a seminal example of assimilation:

    But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16, ESV)

    In the New Testament, Paul personally assimilates alien Gentiles into the church, which was originally a Jewish sect:

    Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-13)

    In the Old Testament, strangers among the Israelites were held by God to the same moral standards as the Israelites. In regard to offensive sexual practices:
    “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you” (Leviticus 18:24-26, ESV)

    In the New Testament, Jesus invited the alien Samaritan woman to join his new Jewish sect, but he also immediately called her out for immoral sexual behavior:

    Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (John 4:16-18, ESV)

    What if we neglect this difficult task of persuading outsiders in our midst to change their evil ways? In 1 Kings 16:29-32, we learn that Israel neglected to uphold the holiness of God by permitting alien Baal worshipers to follow their religion freely within Israel – even to the point of direct support from King Ahab, who married the Baal-worshipping Jezebel. God then raised up the prophet Elijah to put an end to it, culminating in the bloody slaughter of hundreds of the priests of Baal.

    The Bible teaches Christians to love Muslim refugees in such a way as to dissuade them from serving the false god, Allah, point them to Jesus, and prevent them from corrupting our own societies. But permitting large numbers of Muslims to enter the United States and settle into distinct Muslim communities is foolish in the extreme.