THE BLOG
01/15/2015 01:18 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

Could Charlie Hebdo Happen Here?

The killing in France of cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo who satirized the Prophet, among other religious figures, immediately prompted me to question whether something similar could happen in America. Could someone from my faith engage in such heinous violence?

A friend who is an evangelical believer said to me, "that kind of violence in Paris couldn't be done by a real Christian. It would have to be someone who just claims the faith but is really a radical or criminal." But is this true? And do Christians think Muslims are capable of violence, but they are not?

When the original reports of Norway's 9/11 came out about a mass shooting at a youth camp on the island of Utoya, the blame was put at the feet of Muslim extremists. It turned out that the young man who carried out the attack was a Norwegian who publicly identified himself as Christian on his Facebook page and also posted online a 1500 page ideological manifesto in which he declared himself to be a "cultural Christian" crusader standing up for Europe's "Christian culture" against the forces of "Islamization." So explains scholar Robert Jones, President, Public Religion Research Institute, which has done extraordinary work at deciphering faith and politics.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who owns FOX-TV, similarly was placing blame where he should not have with his comment that Muslims must be "held responsible" for the attacks in Paris. If so, critics asked, doesn't that mean all Christians are responsible for what a minority in our midst do?

According to the Public Religion Research Center, Americans employ a double standard when evaluating violence committed by self-identified Christians and Muslims. More than 8-in-10 (83 percent) Americans say that self-proclaimed Christians who commit acts of violence in the name of Christianity are not really Christians, while only 48 percent of Americans said that self-proclaimed Muslims who commit violence in the name of Islam are not really Muslims.

There's clearly a " blind spot" in the thinking of millions of our fellow citizens. PRRI's Robert P. Jones relayed that the double standard was most prominently employed by those who identify as Christian but least likely to appear among millennials. Jones thinks it's possible that the younger generation might "facilitate a resolution of the public's current ambivalence about the place of American Muslims in society."

There is a modest improvement within evangelicalism. Evangelicals have been intimidated in the past by Christian fundamentalists, the right-wing of religion in the United States, from speaking out against language or behavior that crosses the line. A case in point: "Islam is an evil and wicked religion," a mantra heard less frequently today than a few years ago, but still what millions of evangelical believers are trying to resolve in their own minds. When asked to reconsider the statement, Rev. Franklin Graham, declined. He went on to express his love for "the Muslim people," but said he has "great difficulty with the religion." You can almost see him trying to walk back the tone if not the substance of his defamatory comment.

An "American Trends" poll conducted in May-June, 2014, by the Pew Research Center found that when respondents were asked to rate religious groups on a "feelings thermometer," from 0 (coldest, most negative) to 100 (warmest, most positive) white evangelicals gave their coldest response to atheists (25) and Muslims (30) and their highest to their fellow fellow Evangelicals (82), followed by Jews (69) and Catholics (62).

By itself, the Pew Research Center polling may not mean much except that we humans feel most warmly to those we know and cold to those we don't know. A private survey back in 2008 conducted by the National Association of Evangelicals of its one-hundred board members found that few, if any, had "close personal friendships" with members of another faith. But it'll take just such influential denominational leaders to exhibit an interest in doing so to begin to break down the tribalism and exclusivity within the movement.

The lack of interfaith friendships generally has been substantiated, despite the increasing pluralism of American society. Three-in-ten Americans say they interact daily (6 percent) or occasionally (24 percent) with a Muslim. More than two-thirds (68 percent) report that they seldom or never interact with a Muslim. More disturbing is this: Nearly 6-in-10 white evangelical Protestants believe the values of Islam are at odds with American values.

This attitude is reflected in a Minnesota (Republican) County Chairman's comment in 2014 that Muslims in Minnesota need to "repent, except (sic) Jesus Christ, or leave the country." Do I need to say how appalling and un-American this belief is?

We owe it to our children and our God to consider our role in fostering polarization, or of a "conflict of civilizations." I personally disavow that terminology as inaccurate but millions of my religious cohort accept it. Either way, if we are to avoid conflicts between these two evangelistic faiths -- Islam and Christianity -- we'll need to be visionary in our thinking, compassionately strategic, and tactically bold.

First, we evangelicals will need to rid ourselves of our bigotry and Islamophobia. The Scriptures state "without a vision the people perish." We need to see and think more clearly about Muslim believers and Islam itself. The Golden Rule is this: think about others as you would wish them to think about you. No one can enforce this upon us, since no one can prove how or what we think. However, if the Ultimate Judge will hold us accountable for our stupidity and bigotry, then we need to change our stinking thinking.

For starters, how about a mindful benevolence toward Muslims? Why is this so difficult? English poet W.H. Auden in "Appropo of Many Things" explains: "We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die."

Second, our strategy must be to care more deeply about the reality of Muslim life and experience. A vision without a strategy is an hallucination. The reality is that Christian Evangelical voters were instrumental in electing George W. Bush, who began wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost billions of dollars, and resulted in the death or injury of hundreds of thousands of people. To "love your neighbor as yourself" requires asking whom that neighbor might be. "Who is my neighbor?" My answer includes the Muslim believers who reside right where we live, or in Iraq, Afghanistan, or France.

Could the attack in Paris be about more than the offense to the Prophet Muhammed or to Islam? Professor Seyla Benhabib at Yale says it is at root driven by "Muslim rage and Arab Muslim civilizational despair." She calls for a "regional or international effort on the scale of a Marshall plan for the Arab Muslim world that will invest in infrastructure, communications, agriculture, industry, medicine, and education. Just as Europe was pulled out of its devastation after WWII, so too this region which is almost bleeding to death, needs to be resuscitated."

Evangelicals were significantly responsible for passing the "President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief" in Africa during the Administration of George W. Bush and could get behind this kind of idea. Call it a kind of atonement for our previous political sins of militarism.

"Islam in America: The Christian Truth," an excellent documentary by filmmaker Steve Martin, chronicles the story of Muslims living in conflict zones right here in our own country, and how evangelicals have loved and not hated those who love Allah. We have a long way to go to reach interfaith comity in America, but younger "new evangelicals" are much more ecumenical and open to joint efforts with Muslims.

Finally, any act of violence can be an interfaith train wreck requiring a bold response. It means doing more than just keeping our thoughts right about Muslim believers. It requires a holy boldness to challenge that which divides or denigrates. It requires that we be healers. From a Christian point of view, this enters the domain of the Spirit. It requires that we pray and seek peace, especially among those with whom we might disagree, religiously and politically.

All of this brings me back to Charlie Hebdo, which uses satire to skewer the powerful. It also provokes those who don't understand. I experienced a non-violent but nonetheless angry response when the Colbert Report did a "Word of the Day" on the "rift within evangelicalism" over my advocacy on climate change and a broad evangelical agenda.

It clued me in to how even the parties to an intra-religious dispute can lose their sense of humor. What happened to the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo was an extreme form of religious violence. It was a senseless act of murder perpetrated upon the innocent. Alas, we do not control how, when, or where, we will die. But we can control what we die for.

There is another example of courage we honor this week: Martin Luther King, Jr., who exhibited the qualities extolled here -- wisdom, compassion, and boldness. They're about the mind, the heart, and the will. Young people need heroes and he's one of mine.

We know not the length of our days. The editors at Charlie Hebdo and the shoppers at a Paris supermarket had theirs tragically cut short. So did Martin Luther King, Jr. What we have to ask ourselves is this: What will we each do with the time given us? The only thoughts we have to deal with are the present ones. So also the gift of a caring heart. Or the courage to be bold.

We dwell upon life not death and how to make the most of it. Demonstrating here and now what it means to be human. Not least of all, to love not hate.