All posts by Grayson Robertson

An Evangelical Christian Responds to Muslims

Feisal Abdul Rauf and Douglas Johnston. Photo Credit: Dialogue Institute
Feisal Abdul Rauf and Douglas Johnston. Photo Credit: Dialogue Institute

I was privileged recently to participate in a conference entitled “Islamophobia and Religious Freedom” at Temple University in Philadelphia.  The conference was sponsored, in part, by the organizations headed men whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know over the past few years – Dr. Douglas Johnston of The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy and Dr. Rick Love of Peace Catalysts International.

The primary purpose of the conference was to address the perpetual rift between Evangelical Christians and Muslims in the United States – two groups that seem to always be at intractable odds.  There were a number of excellent presentations by experts in various aspects of religion and religious freedom from both the Christian and Muslim faith traditions.  Some presentations covered sensitive topics of concern to the Christian and Muslim communities respectively; however, these topics were discussed in a much-needed spirit of brotherhood and reconciliation.

No participant at this conference was under the illusion that the fault lines between the evangelical Christian and Muslim communities are imagined.   This conference was not designed to have Christian and Muslim leaders come together, sing “Kumbaya”, and sweep the issues under the rug.  The purpose was just the opposite.

I had the pleasure of moderating an enlightening discussion concerning barriers to peaceful relations with Muslims, real and perceived, among Evangelical Christians.  The presentations focused on concerns about Islamic extremism in America, the persecution of Christians in some Muslim-majority countries, and the perceived failure of moderate Muslims to counter the extremist Islamic message.  These are serious topics and valid concerns among Evangelical Christians.  I would like to share my insights on each of these topics in the context of the presentations at this conference.

While media coverage implies that Islamic extremism is increasing and spreading in the Middle East, the facts do not support the notion of a rise in Islamic radicalism here in the United States.  According to Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, there have been over 190,000 murders in the United States.  Of those, 37 were committed by Muslim-American terrorists –  a miniscule percentage that certainly belies the notion of Islamic extremism infiltrating American society.

Many within Evangelical Christianity have asked “why do Muslims hate Christians so?” in response to the media reports of persecution of Christians in some Muslim-majority countries.  However, I can assure you that many Muslims ask the same question of Christians when they hear the vile general accusations toward Islam that are hurled by some prominent evangelical Christians.  Unfortunately, we heard stories of young Muslim children right here in the United States that have been beaten and ridiculed for their faith by other “normal” children.

The third topic in my panel discussion asked the question, “Where are the moderate Muslims?”  The fact of the matter is they are there and are vocal; however, as we all know, especially during the current election cycle, those that stand for peace are not as attractive to the media as those who advocate controversy.  As Sally Quinn of the “On Faith” blog of the Washington Post has said, “If it bleeds, it leads”.  Do we, as Evangelical Christians, feel the need to publicly condemn the Westboro Baptist Church each time they spew hate in the name of Christianity?  Or the hundreds of murders that occur across the United States every month committed by misguided individuals that happen to be from a Christian background?  We do not automatically make the connection between violent acts and a person’s religion in any context other than Islam.

Again, I do not pretend to believe that there are not issues between the two faiths that must be addressed head-on; however, I am dismayed at the seeming prejudice displayed by some in both faith traditions that imply that the two faiths are somehow incompatible and incapable of peace.  Honestly, I am not sure what lies behind that feeling among some – I am sure it is exceedingly complex.  I can only speak to the misunderstandings and enmity that originate within my faith tradition – Evangelical Christianity.

The challenge for Evangelicals in addressing these issues is that we tend to revert to our basest human natures which are clearly not in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ.  We do this out of a real or perceived fear.  Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves, whether they be black, white, Jewish, Islamic, or just like us.  What “loving someone” means has a number of different interpretations for different people; however, loving someone as ourselves leaves no doubt as to what we are commanded to do.  In doing anything other than this, we, as Christians, risk losing our Christian identity and betraying the Christian values that we claim to espouse.

Lessons from History

On this day, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland,  I am reminded of the senselessness and bizarre nature of violence in the name of religion.  I visited Auschwitz in 1988 and was deeply moved by the spectre of what occurred there so many years ago.  The thought of men, women, and children murdered simply because they existed were haunting.  At the time of Auschwitz’s liberation, the horrors that came to light seemed to hold the promise of shocking some sense into the world.

However, as time passes and the events of the Holocaust fade further into the past, it seems as if the human race remembers nothing.  Have we forgotten the lessons of the past?

The recent events in Iraq and Syria involving the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and in Nigeria involving Boko Haram are of great concern to the West and rightfully so.  ISIS has singularly proven itself to be one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty organizations the world has ever known.  The horrifying images of hostages being brutally beheaded on video in the name of Islam threaten to further fan the flames of sectarian conflict in the Middle East.  A secondary, but no less troubling, byproduct of these images has been the hostile reaction of many Christians in the United States toward Islam, believing that Islam is accurately represented by the barbaric acts of ISIS.

As part of a Church symposium on Christian-Jewish relations in 1996, Pope John Paul II spoke of the historical misinterpretation of Christian theology used to demonize Jews.  He decried the moral “numbness” this caused in the larger Christian conscience as part and parcel of the lack of Christian resistance to the Holocaust.  Similarly, questioning the true nature of Islam in the context of the brutality of ISIS is heating up, especially in the United States against the backdrop of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  There have been examples of politicians, religious leaders, military officials, and celebrities publicly calling into question the integrity of Islam.

Public statements by some who align themselves with conservative Christianity, such as that of Retired General and Vice President of the Family Research Council Jerry Boykin, seem to encourage sectarian strife between Christians and Muslims in the United States.  Boykin recently implored Americans to “…have more babies and populate this country with red-blooded Americans” to counter the population growth of Muslims in the United States.  Boykin’s statements imply that Muslim Americans are not patriotic which follows a common fear among some conservatives of a massive conspiracy among American Muslims to infiltrate American society in the hopes of establishing Islam as the dominant ideology.

The precursor to Kristallnacht in 1939 Nazi Germany was the assassination of German diplomat Ernst von Rath by a young Jew despondent over his family’s forced emigration from Germany to Poland.  Hitler used this act by one person as a pretext to increase wholesale persecution of an entire race writing, “for once the Jews should get the feel of popular anger”.

While the publicity that some public figures have received recently is concerning in terms of the impact their generalizations may have on uninformed listeners, I believe there is an opportunity to foster interfaith dialogue in this hostile environment.  The brutality of ISIS and Boko Haram is prompting Muslim advocacy groups in the United States to disassociate themselves and their understanding of Islam from the twisted theology these two groups use to justify their actions.  There has been a significant increase in such statements from Muslim groups since ISIS began to receive widespread media attention.  This has occurred despite the claim among many conservatives that Muslims remain silent in the face of these atrocities and, therefore, are somehow complicit with them.  As the acts committed in the name of Islam become more ghastly, the logical question becomes how can a faith produce both terror and beauty?  I encourage the reader to realize that true faith, any faith, does not produce brutality and oppression.  It is the misuse of religion to force political and social change that results in the acts of hatred we see on our computer screens.

German Christians largely allowed complacency to mute their opposition to the Nazi persecution of Jews.  As American Christians, let’s not miss this opportunity to join the Muslim voices in denouncing terror in the name of Islam as an abomination against Islam and, indeed, against anyone of any faith.

Charlie Hebdo and Interfaith Relations

The latest attack in the name of religion has roiled French society and once again sent shock waves throughout the Western world.  The fear of a deepening clash between Western and Islamic values grows more acute with each such incident.  The January 7th shootings at the offices of the French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, targeted the right to free speech, a cornerstone value of Western civilization.  For some, the assertions of inevitable confrontation between East and West made by Samuel Huntington in his classic work, Clash of Civilizations, reflect the unfortunately reality of the post-modern world.

How can we, as Christians in a predominately Christian society in the United States, react to this latest provocation in a positive way?  In a broad sense and most importantly, we must make an effort to identify and combat purposeful misinformation that portrays all Muslims in a negative light based on the actions of a small minority.  This incident, like others before it, will be used by extremists on both sides of the political spectrum to advocate for an extreme response.  The far right element in France, personified by Marine Le Pen, has already seized on the opportunity to paint all Muslims as somehow complicit in the actions of terrorists.  Such xenophobia will only thrive if not confronted by reasonable and well-informed opinions.  Extremism begets extremism and plays into the hands of the terrorists.

The first specific reaction we Christians should have to this terrorist action is to acknowledge and amplify the condemnation from Muslims the world over toward the Charlie Hebdo shootings.  Muslim organizations in France and here in the United States have spoken out quite forcefully against the shootings, disavowing any relationship between the killers’ actions and Islamic values and principles.  Regardless, the notion that moderate Muslims must “take back” their religion is a tired and invalid argument.  Moderate Muslims should not have to feel as if they need to disavow themselves of the actions of obviously misguided criminals anymore than I felt the need to differentiate myself from the genocidal actions of, say, the Serbian Christians against Bosnian Muslims during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s.

Secondly, we must try to understand more fully the sensitivities toward depictions of Mohammed in Islam.  Christianity and Judaism both have elements of rejection of representations of the divine as well so it should not be a foreign concept to us.  Muslims do not believe that Mohammed was divine; however, the early followers of Mohammed did recognize the excessive reliance on icons among their contemporary Christian and Jews of the 6th and 7th centuries and warned against the propensity to worship icons in place of true divinity.  Clearly and without a doubt, the actions of the terrorists in reacting to the defamation of Mohammed by Charlie Hebdo was wrong and is an assault against the Western value of free speech which should be defended vigorously.  At the same time, we Christians also have the right to speak out against such disparagement and defend the sanctity of the faith of our Muslim brothers and sisters just as we would want members of other faith groups to respect the symbols of our faith.

Thirdly, we must remember that the actions of “Islamic” terrorists are indiscriminate in terms of who they target.  One of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings was a Muslim police officer who was assigned the task of protecting those who lampooned his religion.  His sacrifice has been memorialized very eloquently on Twitter under the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed.  The killing of Muslims by “Islamic” terrorists should be a clear indication that their actions have nothing to do with fulfilling their twisted understanding of Islamic values.  Rather it should be understood that these terrorists attach themselves to Islam in order to “legitimize” political agendas or, more simply, to feel empowered to lash out against the dissatisfaction with their own lives and direction.  This is not endemic to Islam – all religions are consistently used to legitimize positions that have nothing to do with religious principles.

We, as American Christians, must acknowledge that there is a certain amount of prejudice inherent in the Western view of Islam.  Prejudice is best countered with knowledge and understanding.  I would encourage my Christian brothers and sisters to seek out true knowledge of the values of Islam rather than automatically assuming that these terrorists reflect true Muslim faith.  We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be sold a bill of goods, especially by criminals.


Celebrating Amidst The “War on Christmas”

On this Christmas Eve, as I listen to Christmas carols on the radio and read the Christmas Story from Luke to my children, I think about those of other faith traditions, like Dina, who are considered to be faith minorities in the United States.  How do they receive the theology behind Christmas?  Does the religious “Other” feel threatened by the celebration of Christmas in American society?

Dina’s post very eloquently describes her experiences being Muslim during the Christmas holiday.  Fortunately, for those of us who want to see interfaith relations improve in the United States, her comments bring a measure of relief centered on the realization that there do exist avenues toward common religious understanding.  However, I would like to address a negative factor that inevitably is revisited during this time of the year among some American Christians – the idea that Christmas is under attack – the “War on Christmas“.

There is, no doubt, an increasing secularism in the United States that lead some to believe that nefarious efforts are afoot to erase the influence of Christians in the public sphere.  Our society’s secular nature was established by our Founding Fathers with the intent of establishing a government that is not beholden to one particular religion for fear of oppressing others, as had been their experience in Europe. The increasing diversification of the American societal landscape since the nation’s founding has made secularization even more necessary in order to ensure a “level playing field” without favor toward one faith over another. There is no real evidence to suggest that a non-Christian faith group is attempting to willfully eliminate Christian influence in the public square; rather, the so-called “War on Christmas” is simply a fairly benign byproduct of the principles of the separation of church and state that this country was founded upon.

Do I believe that American society would be in a better place if Christian principles were allowed to shape public policy? Absolutely! But I also believe that our society would be better off if Muslim or Jewish morality were exclusively practiced rather than succumbing to the absence of public morality. Unfortunately, the nature of man has proven to lead to the abuse of power in order to promote a certain agenda and, when the agenda has been religious in nature, this abuse has proven to have had catastrophic results in the past. Those that promote religion on the public arena quite often end up casting a negative light on their religion rather than achieving any kind of moral purpose. James Madison, the Father of the United States Constitution, said,

“Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.” (Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822)

Our nation’s diverse society requires a great modicum of respect by faith groups toward each other. Personally, I have never felt physically threatened in exercising my faith in this country and have not met many other Christians who do. A preoccupation with a mythical “War on Christmas” only serves to create a siege mentality among those Christians who believe in it. Christians cannot reflect the teachings of Christ while circling the wagons to fend off attacks and we cannot demonstrate Christ’s most important teaching, forgiveness, while constantly in defense mode.

The meaning of the Christmas season, to Christians, is about the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We should remember, however, that not all of our fellow citizens take the same meaning from the holiday. When it comes to the relationship between Christians and Muslims, particularly during the Christmas season, we Christians would be better served in remembering that Jesus is a central and revered figure in Islam as well as Christianity. As Dina expressed in her post, a Muslim following true Islam will join a Christian in honoring Jesus during this season. So, as Christians, we should put away the armor and sword during this season and reach out to our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition with a focus on the teachings of Jesus as a bridge over the divide.

Ferguson and Interfaith Relations

It seems as if the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have most people taking sides – either justifying Officer Darren Wilson’s actions or condemning the shooting death of Michael Brown, the young man who Officer Wilson fatefully encountered on a Ferguson street August 9th, 2014.  The emotions around this case are racially charged and seemed to be dictated by the color of one’s skin.  African Americans decry the bias they believe is inherent in the treatment of African American youths by law enforcement.  Caucasian Americans wonder why African Americans can’t see the reason for the their bias in the face of the violence and rioting that occurred after the Grand Jury’s declination to file criminal charges against Officer Wilson.

Whether one view is absolutely right or wrong is as irrelevant as it is a fantasy – as in any conflict, both perceptions of the issue have some truths and some falsehoods.  The false perceptions of motives and inclinations of blacks and whites toward each other in this country spring from the sinful practice of prejudicial thinking.  Prejudice – the preconception of a person or group of persons based on ethnicity, religion, or any other characteristic – devalues the integrity of the person as an individual, unique in his or her own right.  In its worst form, prejudice can be the catalyst for violence.

Jesus Christ warned against assuming the motives of others’ actions in the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew 5:46-47 recounts Jesus’ clear teaching concerning how we are to treat others that we may be fearful of due to prejudices:

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

His approach is one of forgiveness and turning our focus on our own actions, looking ourselves in the mirror and assessing whether we are acting as He would want.

There are lessons in the racial divide caused by such stereotyping of African American youths that can be applied to interfaith relations.  Marc Gopin, professor of religious studies at George Mason University, talks about the concept of “Othering” in his book Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East.  “Othering”, according to Gopin, is defined as viewing another individual or group through the lens of biases that we have developed over years, biases that tend to grossly exaggerate a negative preconception in a sub-conscious effort to counterbalance fear.

When we engage in “Othering”, we dehumanize the individual or group we are targeting.  In our eyes, the “Other” loses his or her human and, most importantly, unique qualities in the fog of stereotyping.  Suddenly, their motives become suspect and nefarious, their raison d’ etat somehow disconcerting and scary.  I personally find it difficult to engage in “Othering” when I know members of the group in question.  Knowing them on a personal scale breaks down the stereotype and applies a human face.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners has written a beautiful piece on the importance of proactive reconciliation to the Christian walk.  He writes, “It’s time to listen — for us white Americans to listen to black Americans; for white parents to listen to black parents; for white Christians to listen to black Christians. This may be the most important thing we have ever had to do: to listen, really listen.”  As Christians, we are commanded by our faith to be peacemakers and reconciliation facilitators rather than dividers, just as Jesus reconciled us to our heavenly Father through His death and resurrection.

The incident in Ferguson, Missouri should give us pause to consider whether prejudices influence how we view the religious “Other”.  In the highly-charged American political climate, simple misunderstandings of other religious traditions are exploited to fuel fear and further political agendas and, in doing so, legitimize these misunderstandings as truth .  All people of faith must be on guard to avoid allowing fear and unfamiliarity of other religious traditions and, in some cases, years of learned and unchallenged bias, influence behavior toward others.

If we take the time to listen to one another on faith issues as well, rather than jumping to conclusions and automatically casting the “Other” is a demonizing light, we are in obedience to God’s commands and we may learn a few things along the way.