Kimberly Reisman ~ The Sacred Right of Refusal

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About this time back in 2006 I wrote a post about Abdul Rahman, who caused quite a stir across the world when he was put on trial in Afghanistan for converting to Christianity – he faced the death penalty. At the time, Afghanistan’s constitution was based on Islamic law, which holds that any Muslim who chooses to become a Christian is to be put to death. That’s why senior Muslim clerics – both hardliners and moderates – demanded that Rahman be executed.

As you might expect, there were a lot of facets to the controversy.

There was a political aspect, which necessitated attention from President Bush and Condoleezza Rice, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. It was pretty touchy and western aid and support seemed to hang in the balance. The trial also raised a values issue – western verses Islamic – including the irony that Muslims living in the west are afforded rights which Christians living in Islamic countries are denied. Religious leaders from across the Christian community – Protestant and Roman Catholic – and across the world – Germany, Italy, the United States – voiced their concerns. For a brief period of time, the fate of Abdul Rahman was at the forefront of media attention.

In the end, Rahman was released on a technicality and was able to receive asylum in Italy. I have no idea what became of him. The media and the world moved on to other controversies and attention grabbing events.

But for whatever reason, I continue to recall Abdul Rahman. One reason may be the marked contrast it highlights between Islam and the Jesus way. At the time, Rahman stated, “I am not an infidel or a fugitive. I am a Christian. If they want to sentence me to death, I accept that.” He chose to stand firm in his choice to be a Christ follower and it’s that choice that provides the contrast.

At the heart of the Jesus way is the revelation that God desires to be in a relationship of love with each one of us. God is constantly seeking and searching, aggressively pursuing us and reaching out to us in order to offer love and forgiveness, wholeness and restoration. That reaching culminates in the event of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s ultimate offer of love to the world.

Yet even as God seeks and searches, pursues and reaches out, God never forces, manipulates, coerces or bullies us into relationship. God may seek, but we must always respond. Even those who have grown up in the Christian faith – who are “Christian by accident of birth” – must eventually respond. And our response is sacred. God honors that response – even if human Christ followers have a hard time doing the same. God will never stop reaching, but God always honors our sacred right of refusal or acceptance. One of the beautiful things about the Wesleyan understanding of the Jesus way is that it highlights this sacred right of refusal or acceptance. We are always free – to respond in love to the love God so graciously offers us, or to decline God’s offer of love – to go our own way.

The fact that Abdul Rahman was in danger of having his head chopped off because he chose to become a Christian tells me that this isn’t the nature of the god of Islam. Clerics stated that because Islam is a religion of tolerance and peace, Rahman would have been forgiven if he had changed his mind and returned to Islam. But short of recanting his newfound faith, he was destined for the death penalty.

Obviously Muslims freely welcome those converting to Islam; in fact Islam is openly evangelistic. The intent of Islam is to convert as many people as possible and countless people in the course of history have been forced to convert. This isn’t a popular fact – it seems much more acceptable to highlight the Christian missteps in this regard – but it’s true nonetheless. But converting to Islam wasn’t what put Rahman’s life in jeopardy, it was choosing another way that so endangered him.

Because I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s ultimate gift of love to the world – God’s ultimate self-revelation – it’s a sad day for me when someone willingly chooses to reject that gift of love. But being a Christ follower includes an obligation to offer love, care and respect to all persons – even those who have rejected us and the God we serve. That’s a foundational element of faith in Jesus Christ. Our failure to always adhere to that foundational element doesn’t alter the fact that it exists. Yet clearly in Islam there’s no sacred right of refusal at all. Clearly, rejecting Islam isn’t an option unless you’re prepared to die.

So I’m left with a stunning contrast – and it’s not just the contrasting way governments balance civil and religious issues. It’s the contrast between two gods. On one side stands a God who honors each human being’s sacred right of refusal – who honors each person’s freedom to respond in love to the love offered, or to go his or her own way. On the other stands a very different god – a god who doesn’t recognize that freedom – who is insulted and demands that followers defend this god against humiliation by executing anyone who chooses a different course.

Some have said the Abdul Rahman controversy was more about democracy and the freedoms it affords than it was about religion. Though my response is that the seeds of democracy are to be found in the Jesus way, the reason the controversy remains in my mind even decades later is much deeper than that. When I recall Abdul Rahman, I recall the magnificent love offered in Jesus Christ – a love that comes to us freely and waits for our response without pressure or manipulation; a love that respects our sacred right of refusal; a love that Abdul Rahman was willing to die for. And that’s a love worth sharing.

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