Dear fellow American Christians:
Each of us lives out our faith in a particular era, in a unique time and place. We encounter challenges which are specific to our context. Our calling as followers of Christ is to face these challenges with grace and love. We cannot avoid these confrontations; they are ours, and we must engage them. Furthermore, we must consider whether we have been placed here “for just such a time as this.”
In the year 2015 in Dallas, Texas, we find ourselves facing a challenge which I think most of us would rather not confront. In our day and time, there is significant persecution, opposition, and outright hatred, of Muslims and of the practice of Islam. This was on full display a few weeks ago in Garland, outside of a convention center where Muslims were gathering with the purpose of denouncing terrorism and hate, and instead were met with protestors demanding them to “go back home and take Obama with you.” Then again last week, on Texas Muslim Day in Austin, one angry protestor grabbed a microphone from a Muslim speaker and loudly proclaimed that “Islam will never dominate in the United States, and by the grace of God it will not dominate Texas!” Furthermore, that same day, Texas legislator Molly White instructed her aides to ask any Muslim visitors to her office to recite the pledge of allegiance before speaking with them.
Now, fellow Christians, let’s set aside the theological questions for the moment. Let’s not argue over whether Muslims are going to heaven or hell, whether Muhammad can be considered a prophet, or even the merits of Islam itself. I want us to instead focus on our own behavior, on our own treatment of the stranger.
The fact is that Muslims live in America, approximately 7 million of them, which accounts for just over 2% of the population. This is not an especially big number, as you can see. More importantly, however, these Muslims are Americans. They are citizens. They work in all the sorts of jobs that we work. They serve in the military, own small businesses, play professional sports, study in universities, and even hold political office. They are, you see, our neighbors. I don’t think I need to remind you what Jesus said about our neighbors.
The fact is that the one thing that might distinguish a Muslim from one of us is, obviously, her faith. We practice different religions. This means that we hold different conceptions about God, God’s interaction with the world, God’s revelation to humans, and the prophets or messengers chosen by God. We also may have differing views about proper behavior or lifestyle. The same is true, incidentally, for the followers of Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Wiccan, or atheism.
What is the proper way for us to interact with these practitioners of other religions? What does our religious tradition teach us to do?
Again, regardless of whether we think they are “wrong” or “right,” the fundamental baseline behavior that Jesus asks us to follow is neatly summed up in this way: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I guess that we would want the freedom to practice our religion and follow our God the way we feel called to do. I suppose that we also would not like to be criticized, yelled at, condemned, or persecuted.
Because you are my fellow Christians, I also want to propose that you consider the meaning of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13:24-30. In this story, a farmer sows a field with wheat, but at night, an enemy comes and sows weeds alongside the wheat. As the plants begin to appear, it’s obvious that somebody has sabotaged the harvest. The farmer’s hired hands ask, “Should we go and pick the weeds and dispose of them?” The farmer replied, “No, because, while gathering the weeds, you might accidentally uproot some of the good wheat. Just let them both grow now until it is harvest time, and then I will have the reapers separate the weed from the wheat.”
I understand the point of this story to be very simple: it is not our place, nor is it the time, to be deciding who is in or who is out. It is not our role to judge who is right or who is wrong — that is clearly God’s task alone. Our job is not to identify the “infidels” and remove them from our sight. We’re likely to get that wrong anyway, and remove those who turn out to be God’s most faithful servants. This is a parable, primarily, about the patience and tolerance of God. We ought to be far more concerned about the question of whether our own lives are “wheat” or “weed.”
Finally, you may be concerned about the supposed link between Islam and terrorism. It is true that, at this moment in history, there are a number of terror groups that claim to be acting in the name of Islam, or in the interest of a unified Islamic state or “caliphate,” including Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram. At other periods in history, terror groups were linked to Christian churches or sects, such as the Ku Klux Klan, Serbian nationalists, and the IRA (Ireland). During these times, however, people did not question Christianity as being a violent religion, in and of itself. We must not allow ourselves to do the same with Islam.
Like Christianity, Islam is not monolithic. There is not only one head of Islam, no one person or one group which speaks for all of Islam. There is no one interpretation of the Koran which everyone subscribes to.
Like Christianity, Islam contains different “denominations” or expressions of faith, including Shia, Sunni, Sufi, and Ahmadiyya, to name a few. Each of these differ in doctrine, ritual, and behavior.
As with the Bible, the Koran can be read or interpreted selectively, to seem to imply that violence against unbelievers is encouraged. Before we rush to conclusions about what Muslims believe, however, we must come to terms with the violence contained in our own scriptures. Consider, for example, the 850 prophets of Baal and Ashram slaughtered by Elijah on Mount Carmel in I Kings 18:19-40, or the Lord’s command to Saul to attack the city of Amalek, sparing nobody, but “kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (I Samuel 15:2-3).
If nothing else, we must remain humble about our own faith and admit that violence has been done in the name of God, in the name of Jesus Christ, and in the name of the Christian church.
Islam springs from the same Biblical fountain as Judaism and Christianity, and is only a few hundred years younger than Christianity. For thirteen hundred years, it has functioned as a civilizing and healing force in many countries. It has a long history of scientific, mathematic, artistic, and spiritual achievement. In every sense of the words, it has been one of the world’s great religions.
Thus, we must recognize that the terror practiced by Islamic extremist groups is an anomaly in view of this long history. And it represents only the tiniest of fractions of actual, real-life, practicing Muslims worldwide.
Muslims are human, meaning that they suffer from the same temptations, tests, trials, and tendencies as we do. One should not be surprised that a large organization made up of humans suffers from divisions, strife, jealousies, and even hatred, which hardens and sometimes manifests as splinter groups which commit acts of terror. The same happens in Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, and Hindu temples. We are all subject to human passions and fears.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, please listen to me: the time has come for us to stand up as people of one faith to defend people of another faith. In our day, the demand of the gospel is that we stand in solidarity with people for their right to follow their own conscience and practice their faith in freedom. It doesn’t matter whether we believe them to be right or wrong, Muslims deserve our support, as human beings, as neighbors, and particularly as people of faith. The time may come when we will need their support. Indeed, already in other places in the world, Muslims have been standing up to defend the rights of minority Christians in such places as Egypt, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
For the sake of Jesus, who extended fellowship to a Samaritan woman (considered a heretic by fellow Jews), as well as Gentile demoniacs, Roman centurions, and traitorous tax collectors, can we please, please, stop the anti-Islam madness?
Rev. Wes Magruder
Wes Magruder is senior pastor of Kessler Park UMC; United Methodist pastor since 1996. Former missionary to Cameroon, West Africa. Founded Daraja, a ministry to resettled refugees in Dallas. Calls himself a “shalom activist.” Blogger, writer, speaker; loves Radiohead, U2, Wilco; has a beautiful wife and three lovely daughters!