Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Islam and the Rules of Christian Conversation

After you've killed 3,000 people, you're going to now build your mosque?
Glenn Beck, August 18, 2010

To start with, as a general proposition, it's vital that the American citizenry always be frightened of some external (and relatedly internal) threat. Nothing is easier, or more common, or more valuable, than inducing people to believe that one discrete minority group is filled with unique Evil, poses some serious menace to their Safety, and must be stopped at all costs. The more foreign-seeming that group is, the easier it is to sustain the propaganda campaign of fear..."The Muslims" are currently the premier, featured threat which serves that purpose, following in the footsteps of the American-Japanese, the Communists, the Welfare-Stealing Racial Minorities, the Gays, and the Illegal Immigrants. Many of those same groups still serve this purpose, but their scariness loses its luster after decades of exploitation and periodically must be replaced by new ones.
Glenn Greenwald

Last week’s NPR firing of journalist Juan Williams invites us into a longer, deeper conversation about an assortment of issues including free speech, the supposed objectivity of certain media and the sensitivity of interreligious & intercultural dialogue. Williams made a typical appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show and legitimated O’Reilly’s blunt comment on The View the previous week: “Muslims killed us on 9/11.” Williams reasoned:

Well, actually, I hate to say this to you because I don't want to get your ego going. But I think you're right. I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality.

I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

Now, I remember also when the Times Square bomber was at court -- this was just last week -- he said: "the war with Muslims, America's war is just beginning, first drop of blood." I don't think there’s any way to get away from these facts.

NPR, who has had a history of reprimanding Williams, fired him. This sparked many right-wing pundits into a fired-up free-speech frenzy, denouncing NPR for being liberal, socialist, etc. Glenn Greenwald has written some excellent, well-documented (Apology: anytime I write “Glenn Greenwald” and “well-documented” in the same sentence, it is tremendously redundant) posts in the wake of the firings, pointing out the hypocrisy of Fox and other media outlets who stood silently on the sidelines as other journalists have been fired recently for their own controversial statements. In addition, as always, Media Matters has documented the ritualized uproar from the right (not to mention MM catching the ire of Rush Limbaugh this week for the $1 million donation from that “foreigner” George Soros, who has been an American citizen for 50 years).

What concerns us here is the bogus standpoint of Christians who continue to concur with these sentiments from Williams and O’Reilly and others, like those from Brian Kilmeade: “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.” Most American Christians rolled their eyes at the Florida pastor who made headlines for hosting a Koran-burning on the front yard of his church, but too many Christians consistently allow fear and ignorance to set the agenda for how Muslims are talked about and treated in American society. I have more than a hunch that too many—Christians--Evangelicals, Catholics and Mainline Denominationalists—-are fervently nodding in approval, whispering “amen” to the dire warnings about Muslims invading American society with their mosques, hijabs and jihad. Things have gotten so bad during these days of waning Christendom, that I recently had a conversation with an 80-something-year-old Christian who justified American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by simplistically quoting the words of Jesus (way out of context) in the Gospels: “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (all this in the context of him laughing off my Christian pacifism and then schooling me about how the violent “Muhammedans” needed to be contained in our world…or else).

We must take seriously an intentional commitment to denounce any talk that equates “Muslim” with “terrorist.” Those with the most privilege and power within American Christianity and society at large—-the group that Martin Luther King referred to as “the white moderate”—-have been commissioned to lead the way towards solidarity with Muslims who are being demonized by pundits and politicians. We can do this by flipping the script and imagining what it must feel like to be a minority group living in an increasingly anti-intellectual society that uses rampant fear-mongering and simplistic scapegoating to make arguments. Could we “Christians” imagine living in a mostly Muslim society that equated the actions of Christian extremists (like the KKK or Catholic pedophilic priests or Koran-burning Southern pastors) with ALL Christians and then legitimizing it by proof-text quoting the Bible’s most abhorrent passages (just as some Christians do with the Koran to "prove" that it is a "violent" religion)? Can we even imagine how excruciating (a word we get from that most important Christian word “crucify”) it must be to endure listening to adherents from the majority religion (vastly outnumbering us)—-out of the bowels of their entitlement—-to continuously either talk about our beliefs and practices in a disgustingly ignorant fashion or nod approvingly with pundits and politicians who say these things knowing their approval ratings will skyrocket due to the emotional reactivity of their viewers/listeners/voters?

Perhaps we could take as our model Francis of Assisi who, during the 13th century crusades, traveled to Egypt and crossed the battle lines to dialogue with the sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil. Al-Kamil embraced him with Islamic hospitality because he sensed quickly that Francis was committed to Christian spirituality and not a crusader (two concepts we Christians need to differentiate today as some followers of Jesus are committed to an all-out truth crusade and some are committed to bear fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, etc). Francis did not succeed with any of his goals: become a martyr, converting the sultan or bringing an end to the war. Instead, he found friendship and a deep respect for the sultan’s consistent call to prayer by the muezzin. Of course, Francis was committed to an embodied witness to the reign of God after giving up the convenience of a comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle and was open to benefiting from the spiritual traditions of other religions if he knew it would lead him to a deeper connection with God and a fuller transformation of his own Christ-likeness.

As the living legacy of the crucified Christ and representatives of the majority in the United States, Christians are called to embrace the way of conversation, as outlined by theologian David Tracy:

Conversation is a game with some hard rules: say only what you mean; say it as accurately as you can; listen to and respect what the other says, however different or other; be willing to correct or defend your opinion if challenged by the conversation partner; be willing to argue if necessary, to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it.

When we ignorantly or intentionally neglect these rules, we go the route of monologue, which—-due to its overwhelming lack of love, service and gentleness—-is just as unchristian as cannibalism or necrophilia (I know, a bit dramatic, but still…). Now more than ever, a Christian commitment to conversation and solidarity with Muslims would be a bold witness (salt and light) to a wider world that feeds off the dehumanizing nature of fear, anger and anxiety.

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