This week America will look back to remember one of the defining moments of our history. On 9/11/2001, nineteen extremist Muslims executed the deadliest terrorist plot to occur within American borders. Their actions, motivated by their religious beliefs, snuffed out the lives of 2,996 people, including their own.
In the weeks that followed, investigators identified the terrorists as members of al-Qaeda,a militant Islamic group dedicated to the purification of Muslim countries through a war on all foreign influences. They claim that their holy book, the Koran, justifies this war, known as jihad. Many Muslim leaders condemned the terrorist acts and distanced themselves from al-Qaeda entirely.
The incident provided a racial powder keg that threatened the 5 million Muslims living in the U.S. Government leaders were careful to distinguish between this radical terrorist branch of Islam and the vast majority of Muslims who do not interpret Islamic jihad as military action. They wanted to protect the resident Muslims from a severe retaliation by other Americans.
In the nine years that have followed, most Americans have grown in their knowledge of Islam, but we are still far from understanding all the nuances and subtleties of this religion. Most of us do not appreciate the distinctions between Sunni and Shi’a, much less between Sufism and Ahmadiyya. Complexities have emerged in Islam almost as much as … Christianity.
Christians, of all people, should be understanding of the misunderstanding that descends upon a religion because of the deeds of a radical fringe element. One Christian church traveled throughout the country to protest at the funerals of service personnel who died in Iraq. They invaded these solemn ceremonies to flaunt placards that read “God hates fags.” Through the media, these people masqueraded as representatives of Jesus Christ – not the Jesus of the Bible, however.
Years ago, I attended a protest rally at a small airport for the pro-life movement. A regional politician was passing through and we were there to present a Christian pro-life message. As the politician neared some people in the group began shouting hateful abuses. I was stunned. These people claimed to be followers of Jesus, but I could not imagine that the Jesus of the Bible would ever approve of their belligerent behavior.
Like Islam, Christianity claims to be a religion of peace. Yet Christianity has bred fringe radical groups, also. In 1978 Jim Jones convinced 907 followers to commit revolutionary suicide by drinking a cyanide Kool-aid mixture because he feared outside forces would invade their community. And how many professing Christians practiced the vile hatred of black Americans to the point of persecution and lynchings?
Most Christians quickly distance themselves from the more radical groups who claim the name of Christ. We would declare them heretics at worst, grossly misguided at best. Yet, the uninformed might not make the same distinctions that we do. The repugnant actions of a few radicals damages Christianity’s reputation.
What did Jesus actually teach? He upended standard Jewish theology in the Sermon on the Mount, declaring, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:43-45).
And what did Jesus actually do? He was beaten within a lash of his life by Roman guards, although he had broken no Roman law. Spikes were driven into his hands and feet so that he could hang on a cross, because his theology did not agree with the current Jewish ruling class. Completely innocent of the atrocities committed against him, Jesus looked upon his persecutors from the cross and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
What did the early followers of Jesus do? They were reviled, persecuted and martyred by people who did not understand them. They did not provoke their persecutors. They did not revile back. They did not organize protests and hatefully malign government officials. They spoke the gospel to their oppressors and prayed for them. These Christians interpreted their faith in Jesus to mean behavior that characterized him. They acted in love not hatred, in peace not hostility.
Now we are faced with applying the same principles of love and peace to our Muslim neighbors. We may disagree with them theologically, but we should love them no less. We should not falsely identify them with the terrorists just because they both claim the name of Muhammad. Regardless of our differences, we should strive to be at peace with them.
“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:17-18) Will we portray an accurate picture of Jesus in the treatment of our Muslim neighbors?