Last week I wrote about 16 young French people in their twenties, who were in the United States learning about how non-government agencies in our country provide various social services and how they raise the money to fund what they do. This week I want to relate something that happened at the end of that visit.
I was the coordinator for the things they did during their week in St. Louis. On the last night they were here, one of the young French men who was a practicing Muslim asked to talk with me in private. When we were alone, he said, "If I ask you a question, do you promise that you will not get mad at me?" We had been together for a week, and without hesitation I replied, "I think you know me well enough to know that you can ask me any question, and I will not get mad."
He then asked me another question. "If I ask you a question, do you promise that you will tell me the truth?" Beginning to wonder where this conversation was going, I replied with conviction, but in a kind manner: "You may ask me any question, and I will not get mad, and I promise that I will not lie to you. Now, what is it that you want to ask me?"
He then said, "Before asking you the question, I just want you to know that I have never spoken with a Protestant about this."
At first I thought he meant that he had never spoken with a Christian about whatever it was he was getting ready to talk with me about, but when I queried him about this, he assured me he had spoken with Roman Catholics about it but never with a Protestant. This really tweaked my interest, and I was eager to hear his question.
He then asked me the question: "Is it true that the Protestant Church in the United States has entered into a secret alliance with the Israeli government to work together in eliminating all Arab people?"
The question was a real shocker for me! I knew I had to reply quickly or he would think I was making up an answer rather than telling him the truth. I had to decide on the spur of the moment whether to go directly to the crux of the question or deal with a side issue first. In his question, he referred to "the Protestant Church." I did not know if he understood that there is not "one" Protestant Church, but many Protestant denominations. I quickly decided it was unimportant to address the matter of denominations at the outset and, instead, to reply in such a way that made it clear all Protestants do not have the same beliefs.
So this is what I said: "First of all, I do not know of any issue that all Protestants would agree on. We have some very conservative Protestants, some very liberal Protestants, and many Protestants whose beliefs range in between the two extremes. Some Protestants are pro-Israel, some Protestants are pro-Arab, and some Protestants vacillate between the two depending upon the news of the day. But I feel quite certain that none of the Protestant churches would ever enter into a "secret alliance" with any government, foreign or domestic -- not with the Israeli government, not with the United States government, not with any other government. Protestant churches just would not do that." I said those last two sentences with considerable force and conviction.
He looked at me for what seemed like several minutes without saying anything -- longer than it was comfortable for me, as I was wondering what he was thinking. Finally, with conviction, he said, "I believe you." And, after another shorter pause, he added, "When I get home I will tell my friends what you told me." And pausing again, he concluded by saying, "But I do not think they will believe me."
I want to make it clear that I am in no way finding any fault with this young man. In fact, I have great respect for his strength of character displayed by asking that question. I am writing about this conversation because it reveals how much misunderstanding there is in the Arab world about what Americans believe and practice, and I have every reason to believe that we Americans have much erroneous information about the Arab world and what Muslims believe and practice. These are such complex issues, and an abundance of misunderstanding and prejudice can be found in all of us.
Once again I am reminded how difficult solving the world's problems really is. As a biblical scholar I have studied the centuries of unrest and war that have kept that part of the world in turmoil. We should not be surprised that our hopes for accord between the present-day Israel and its Arab neighbors are dashed yet again and again by unrest, distrust, and violence.
I do not know what the answer is for bringing peace to the Near East, and I do not think anyone else, regardless of his or her knowledge and experience, has the answer. But this I am sure of: it will take patience and determination over a long period of time. I am so sorry to say that there is no "quick fix."
I am a firm believer in the one God revealed to us by the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible, and my prayer is that that God will guide the leaders of the world and that the leaders of the various peoples will listen to what that God is saying. Even though we will differ in the ways we live and in what we believe to be true about many things, it will be my constant hope and prayer that someday the peoples of the world will come to trust one another enough to live in peace and mutual respect for each other and for the sanctity of human life.
I ask that you join me in that hope and prayer!