Story Magazine - Second Quarter, 2008
Q&A with Charles Amjad-Ali, Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor for Justice and Christian Community
by Kelsey Holm, Communication Specialist
A few inches away hangs the seven deadly sins according to Ghandi. In an issue focused on global mission, Charles Amjad-Ali personifies it. He has lived, worked and traveled across the globe, spreading the good news of Christianity--a faith, he is quick to point out, he was not born into. Amjad-Ali joined the Luther Seminary faculty in 1997 as a visiting professor. Later that same year, he received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Chair of Justice and Christian Community. He also heads the Islamic studies program. A native of Pakistan, one of Amjad-Ali's passions is educating others about the relationship between Christianity and Islam.
What about the Christian faith appealed to you?
If God is the creator of all creation, how does this creator-God become creation in the absolute downtrodden part of history? Single mother, 13 to 16 years old. Born in a manger among the droppings of animals. Truly the filth of history. This is where the Lord of history is to be born and worshipped. After three years of ministry he had only 12 students--I did better than that in my teaching. One of them betrays him, one of them denies him, and then he gets crucified. To me, that is what makes Christianity unique and precisely that which appeals to me, the vulnerability of God and the crucified God. And if you take that out, I don't have to be a Christian. I don't have any DNA loyalty to this faith.
You hold an honorary doctorate in theology from Uppsula University in Sweden, directed the Christian Study Center in Pakistan, wrote for and worked with street theater performers to educate the illiterate about economic issues and wrote speeches for the late Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan. Looking back at your life and career, what do you consider your proudest accomplishment?
I became the first director of political education for the Aurat (Women) Foundation [1995-1996]. It's a center run by women, for women (in Pakistan). I was the first male invited to work with them in setting political education for grass-roots women so they could understand the system of the state and how the state functions. We produced six booklets written in very simple language, with pictures so illiterate women could understand them. Now they've become a high model that everyone is copying. I thought it was a great achievement because it was written for women who were the lowest of the low. As far as Benazir is concerned, I was not only her speechwriter but an adviser on politics. She was the first woman prime minister in 1988, and if you have a woman in an Islamic land you set paradigms. I still remember doing a survey for young schoolgirls in 1985.We asked them what they wanted to be. Everyone answered doctors, teachers, nurses, etc. We did the same survey five years later and 62 percent of young girls wanted to be prime minister because Benazir had provided them with the vision. Since then, because Benazir was head of the second-largest Muslim country in the world, almost every non-Arab Muslim country has had a woman as the head of the state. America has yet to achieve this.
Was there ever a time you felt in danger or fearful?
Oh, constantly. You Americans don't understand it. The danger is a given. If you survive, it's a bonus. This is Christian witness. Nobody ever says you will be protected. Jesus says, "Take up your cross and follow me." He did not say get a Cadillac and follow me. It doesn't say that. The biblical message assumes that you will be threatened and you will be in danger.
And that you should be in danger.
Absolutely. So the question is, what has the Western church compromised so that they are no longer in danger? I think they have tied their faith so tightly to their nationalism that they are now an inseparable reality. For those of us who live in the two-thirds world, where you live constantly under the microscope of other people saying, "What are you Christians doing?" I think we are probably closer to the biblical experience. To be jailed and to be beaten, it's a given. If that does not happen, we thank God. So my achievements and my accomplishments are that I have tried. I want to live as close to the Christian faith as possible. And that faithfulness entails expecting the cross, not avoiding it. That I'm alive, it's certainly not my accomplishment. It's God's accomplishment.
Why is knowing about Islam important for students preparing to be leaders of Christian communities?
We all talk so glibly about loving your neighbor. If I love you and I don't know anything about you, my statement about loving you is nothing else but hypocrisy. One of the neighbors that we have the greatest encounter of fear with right now is Islam. And unless we know who they are, whatthey are, how they are, we can't love them. We really are in a crisis. We don't know how to deal with Islam. Islam is not going to go away, and we can't continue to maintain hostilities and war. It just doesn't work. You can beat somebody into submission, but whenever that person gets a chance, they will rise up and fight. So we need to transform these relationships so that we are no longer in hostile relations with each other.
What has surprised you most about teaching Islam at Luther?
How much we don't know about the world. We don't even know other denominations here. I'm an Anglican. I was the first non-Lutheran, full-time faculty member. I will fight hard for the Lutheran identity of this place and I think this is very important and very critical. I think Lutheran theology has important elements and edges that a lot of other denominations would greatly benefit from. I think it's got great contributions to make. But at present, Lutheranism doesn't, because it doesn't participate in the public realm in the same way other denominations do. The Lutheran contribution to the discourse is kept to a minimum. We talk more about missiology here than other places but we actually don't enter the public space in an apologetic move like Paul did in Athens.
How are things different for us, Christians living in a Christian country, as opposed to Christians living in a non-Christian country? What do we take for granted?
We take for granted that we are meant to be successful, and that to me is such a perverse model, because my Lord, on this success criteria, was not successful. He died on the cross. And he prayed for avoidance of this, the text says he prayed so hard that his sweat was like drops of blood. And God didn't listen to him. And he died. On what faith and theological grounds do we base this comfort zone? It is at the cost of the cross. We expect assets and success and all these things as our inherited right through what I call DNA Christianity. When you don't take all that for granted, the faith comes alive.
How can we, as Christians, promote peace in a post-9/11 world?
I think Christianity is the only way to build peace because it's not the power of God that Christianity appeals to but to the crucified God and vulnerability.
Do you think world peace is possible?
I can say theologically, no. I think we are sinners. I really believe that there is no possibility because I think we are so power-conscious all the time. But at the same time, reconciliation is a fundamental Christian vocation--see 2 Corinthians 5:19--as is peace and justice.
You've educated people in so many countries. Is there any one memory that sticks out in your mind where it was clear that you had made a difference in someone's life or their way of thinking?
I was teaching in Australia. The head of the Northern Land Council of the aboriginal people and I were looking at the Indian Ocean. We were talking about why we are Christians, and we sat from around 6 p.m. all the way up to 5 a.m. as the sun was coming up. He was constantly asking me, "Why Christianity?" He was not satisfied with the white Australian answers, because they had taken their land and beaten them (the Aboriginal people) up. He had become a Catholic by force. I think my answer had a very profound impact and was a transforming moment in his life. He said, "I now understand what it is about Christianity that is critical and what I should be." The second memory is I was teaching at Stellenbosch (South Africa) in 1992. You must remember, this is the heart of the Afrikaaner beast. Apartheid was still there. I was the first person of color to teach there, and the grandson of the founder of the apartheid system came into my apartment. We talked all night and two days later he joined the ANC (African National Congress). His mother disowned him because he joined the ANC. His wife became ambassador to Ireland for the ANC two years later, and he became professor of ethics at Stellenbosch. That was a great transforming moment from something I said and something I did.