Some Christians get excited when they discover that I'm half Indian or that I studied Islam in college. They'll sometimes ask me to talk about how Christianity compares to other faiths. But I've learned that what they mean to say is: "Great, you've read books I'd never own so you can tell us how awful those other religions are, and you're brown so you won't be called a bigot!"
That's pretty much what happened a few weeks after 9/11 when I spoke to a college group at a church. When the pastor learned about my background he said he'd like to throw me a few "softball" questions about Islam at the end of my teaching time. His softball turned out to be a curve ball. He asked me, "Islam is essentially a religion of violence, right?"
"No," I responded. "Islam advocates peace, and most Muslims are very kind, peaceful people."
The pastor looked annoyed from the back of the room. He tried again. "But doesn't the Quran advocate killing Christians and Jews?"
"You might be able to find verses like that in the Quran," I said. "But you could pull verses out of context from the Old Testament to justify killing people too. And there have been very violent eras of Christian history when people did just that. It's not unique to Islam."
At this point the pastor was shaking his head at me from the back of the room. Afterward he expressed his frustration. "There were kids here who aren't sure what they believe," he said to me, "They're wondering about Christianity. And you're defending Islam?"
"Look," I said, "I'm ready and eager to talk about the uniqueness of Jesus, the wonder of the Gospel, and I'll even talk about what distinguishes Christianity from other faiths, but I'm not going to do it by smearing our neighbors and their religion with half-truths and charactatures." The pastor was not happy with me. I had been invited to teach a second week. The invitation was rescinded.
Conversations like that, as well as my work with interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims, have led some to believe that I'm an advocate for Islam -- or at least not sold out for team Christianity (a.k.a. theologically liberal). Nothing could be farther from reality. Here's the truth. First, I believe Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, including our Muslim neighbors, and we cannot love them if we are gripped by fear. The distortions and hysteria regarding Islam since 9/11 is unfair to our Muslim neighbors and preventing Christians from loving them as we are called. I simply want to help the church move past fear to a posture of faith where love becomes possible.
Second, I believe the message of Christ can stand on its own merit without having to misrepresent other religions or showcase the worst elements of other faith communities or their pasts. Heaven knows Christianity has some skeletons in its history closet, and if we want to have a showdown between the worst expressions of Islam and the worst of Christianity, count me out. I'm not interested in defending Christendom/European imperialism. I'm interested in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (Yes, Pat Buchanan, there is a difference between the two.)
And third, I believe James Madison did a great favor to the Christian faith when he penned the First Amendment. Madison understood that in order for true religion to thrive, for peoples' affections to be stirred for their Creator, they needed freedom. Freedom from state coercion. Freedom of conscience. Freedom of practice. Freedom of speech. Freedom to accept religion or reject it. When religion, particularly faith in Christ, is mandated by the state, it inoculates the population from the power of the Gospel. It lulls them into thinking they are truly of Christ when in fact they are not. Madison's writings on the topic reveal that the First Amendment was his attempt at protecting the purity of religion from the coercive power of the state, not simply the other way around.
I want to live in a society where Muslims enjoy every freedom to believe, think, practice and promote their faith, because only in such a society will Christians be free to do the same. But sadly not every state promises the freedoms we have been blessed with in our country. I encourage everyone to read the cover story in the new issue of Newsweek by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (a former Muslim now atheist), titled "The War on Christians."
She reveals how the West has become increasingly sensitive to Islamophobia and the crimes committed against Muslim minorities in Europe and North America. But the media seems reluctant to publicize the horrors being suffered by Christian minorities in North Africa, the Mideast, South Asia and Indonesia. Violence against these Christian communities is on the rise with some radical groups advocating genocide. In addition, Christians are not protected by state laws and in some cases denied even the right to worship privately in their homes. Ali writes:
So let us please get our priorities straight. Yes, Western governments should protect Muslim minorities from intolerance. And of course we should ensure that they can worship, live, and work freely and without fear. It is the protection of the freedom of conscience and speech that distinguishes free societies from unfree ones. But we also need to keep perspective about the scale and severity of intolerance. Cartoons, films, and writings are one thing; knives, guns, and grenades are something else entirely.
I will continue to speak out in defense of my Muslim neighbors, and I will not stop calling the church to love them rather than fear them. But the church in the West must not forget our sisters and brothers in Christ who live in places that do not yet have the freedoms we, or Muslims in the West, enjoy. I am not interested in a cultural holy war between Christendom and Islam. The issue at hand is not world domination of one faith or a winner-take-all crusade/jihad. Rather it is human dignity and religious liberty. Followers of Christ, perhaps more than any others, should advocate that all people be free to believe, worship, think and preach without fear of persecution. Because where this freedom exists not only are religious communities more likely to coexist in peace, but I believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is more likely to thrive.
As Christians, we cannot, and should not, demand that everyone share our beliefs. But we can, and should, demand that everyone share our freedom. For where this freedom exists, we can be sure that Christ will be lifted up and draw people to himself.