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“Give your enemy fresh milk.”  This memorable Somali aphorism from will stay with me for a long time—a highlight of the powerful life story of Ahmed Ali Haile.  In  Teatime in Mogadishu: My journey as a peace ambassador in the world of Islam, readers can discover the reconciliation work and faith journey of this Somali-born peacemaker.  His story, part of the “Christians Meeting Muslims Series,” is told with the help of David W. Shenk, who has lived in East Africa and works with Eastern Mennonite Missions.
Throughout his life Haile has given witness to the power of love and forgiveness.  The book’s title refers to the priority Haile has given to hospitality—setting an example for others of a loving home, expressing God’s love to everyone (even when it might not feel “convenient”). In his effort to live a life in keeping with the peacemaking teachings of Jesus, Haile describes Romans 12 as “an ethical manifesto” for his family, and, truly, his life exemplifies the call to live in harmony with one another, and to overcome evil with good.  This book provides inspiration for those of us who long to listen for God’s call in our lives, and to live out that call with integrity and passion.
Born into a loving, pious Muslim home in central Somalia in 1953, Haile grew up with an awareness of God’s blessings and a desire to serve God.  As a serious student of his religion, Haile was interested in learning more about the monotheistic faiths that preceded Islam, and which are mentioned throughout the Qur’an.  When he had an opportunity to study the Bible, the life of Jesus spoke to his heart and he decided to convert to christianity.  At that time, the political regime in Somalia forbade the practice of any religion except Islam. Within this environment, it was heartening to read that Haile’s parents were very supportive of his decision.  They knew Haile was not rejecting the religion of his birth, but rather that he felt called by God to follow the path of Jesus.
During the 1970s, while Somalia experienced revolution and war with Ethiopia, Haile had the good fortune to receive a scholarship to study peacemaking and development in the U.S.  When he returned to Africa in 1982, Haile worked to nurture healthy relations with the Muslim community and his extended family, meeting weekly with elders from his clan.  “We ate and fellowshipped and conversed vigorously together.  In that way, our covenant of peace was renewed each week.”  This kind of relationship-building is an important foundation for restorative justice, and builds on pre-islamic clan traditions.
Through his studies and his life experiences, Haile determined that neither traditionalist nor modernist forces would bring peace to Somalia—only God could do that, for true restorative justice requires the healing work of the Holy Spirit. Even after losing his leg to a violent attack in 1992, Haile continued to work tirelessly for peace, and, as part of the Somali diaspora in the U.S., he continues his efforts still.
Once again, Mogadishu is in in the news, and at the center of humanitarian crisis and violent conflict. Ahmed Ali Haile’s story demonstrates that we must persist in working for peace, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  This inspiring book includes discussion questions for each of its short chapters, which will be very helpful for book groups and Sunday school classes that use this book as a resource.

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Karen Armstrong is a gifted and inspiring scholar.  In this volume she details the process by which the editors of the Bible fixed the canon, and the many layers of discussion and debate this required. Armstrong describes the key early developments in the Jewish faith and identifies central figures for Torah study. The book covers an immense amount of history, from recording the books of the prophets to the fundamentalist movements that arose in the modern period. Though she covers a broad scope of history, Armstrong’s focus remains clear throughout.

The book opens in 597 BCE and describes the historical events experienced by the Hebrew people during this time, and the process through which their religious practice was developing. Armstrong describes how reading the scriptures came to be a way to be in the presence of God—an alternative to prayer in the temple. The Jesus movement is set in this historical context, as well as the Pharisaic revival that took place about 50 years after the death of Jesus. Most importantly, Armstrong highlights the many ways that rabbis and the leaders of the early Christian church interpreted and applied religious texts, and the implications of these varied viewpoints.

The first century rabbi Hillel famously observed, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go and study it.” (p. 82) In the 5th century, Augustine of Hippo came to a similar conclusion: “Whoever thinks that he understands the divine scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived.” (p. 124) These examples highlight the centrality of compassion in the practice of religion.

The renaissance brought the development of many religious orders, and within these orders traditions of scriptural interpretation developed. Meanwhile, the kabbalist mystical movement of Judaism flourished. There was lively discussion of whether the allegorical, mystical, literal, or historical sense of scripture offered more richness. Armstrong brings the read through the Protestant reformation, with Martin Luther’s emphasis on “scripture alone,” through the rationalist-humanist movements of the 17th century, to the modernist pull between poles of secularists and fundamentalists. Through this discussion, the reader gains a clear sense of the Bible’s roots and of its life in an ever-changing environment. It becomes abundantly clear that for each pull toward the literal, a mystical response will emerge, as an impulse toward balance.

The glossary of key terms provides a helpful reference for Hebrew, Greek, and philosophical vocabulary. The footnotes give the interested reader a map for further study, and the index of biblical citations appears thorough.

Armstrong concludes by noting the critical importance of emphasizing compassion in our religious traditions. Sadly, it is easy for someone to pick up a book of scripture and use the words for ill.  People of faith have a responsibility to educate themselves, and to practice loving our neighbor in an expansive way.

This book is part of the Books That Changed the World Series, published by Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007. I reviewed a copy from my public library.

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