International Burn A Koran Day has come and gone with little impact. A few locations carried out the unofficial protest against Islam instigated by Terry Jones, pastor of a nondenominational church in Florida. At the last minute Jones reneged after meeting with a Muslim cleric, believing that the cleric would halt the controversial plans to construct a mosque near the Ground Zero site in Manhattan. The cleric denied any such promise.
Credit would have to go to the news outlets for whatever backlash the event spawned. Like a Keystone Cops chase scene, the media fell all over itself scrambling to Florida to give Jones national headline attention. Thousands of articles and hundreds of television reports focused the international spotlight on this Christian fundamental extremist.
Oddly overlooked, another pastor was offering an entirely different attitude towards our Muslim neighbors. Steve Stone of Heartsong Church in Memphis read in the newspaper a year and a half ago that a group was building an Islamic Center across the street from the church. Stone had a banner made that announced, “Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood.”
Stone’s warm outreach did not end with the banner. When he learned this past August that the Center would not be completed before Ramadan, Stone offered the use of their church building to his Muslim neighbors. Over 100 Muslims spread out their prayer mats in the church every night after sundown for the month-long sacred holiday.
Where was the media coverage for Heartsong Church? Except for a few local affiliates and small articles, national media virtually ignored this non-random act of kindness. The approval for Stone’s actions among Christians vastly outnumbered the puny support Jones received, mainly from Christians with similar radical ideology.
The Muslims in America provide a modern application of a parable Jesus told to a Jewish legalist. This religious lawyer wanted to interpret the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” in a way that still permitted him to hate and shun people of his choosing. In defining the neighbor, Jesus used a bitter religious enemy as the protagonist of the story.
A band of thieves attacked a man on a notorious stretch of road, leaving him for dead. Both a priest and a Levite saw the man bleeding alongside the road, but chose not to get involved. Then a Samaritan found the man still alive. He bandaged his wounds and placed him on his animal, transporting him to a nearby inn. He paid the innkeeper to nurse the man during his recuperation, promising to pay additional money upon his return to cover the duration of his stay at the inn. (Luke 10:25-37)
The parable shrewdly revealed the wicked heart of the lawyer. The victim was a neighbor to all three men who encountered him, but only the despised Samaritan proved himself “neighborly” in attending to the man’s needs. Jews hated the Samaritans, viewing them as a heretical schism of Judaism. Jesus made it clear that no one should be excluded from the classification of our neighbors.
The Muslims are our neighbors, worthy of the love that Jesus advocated to all neighbors. For some of us, they literally live next door to us, attend school with our children, eat next to us at the same restaurants, use the local parks and stand next to us in line at the theater. This is why Stone said, “We’re loving our neighbors. That’s what we’re called to do.”
Michael Craven has made this observation in his weekly article for the Center for Christ and Culture. “It is here that the love of neighbor either remains theoretical, or we act in obedience by faith and the love of Christ becomes real. … In Jesus’ life and teaching, he intentionally destroyed any sort of conditional response to his command to ‘love your neighbor.’”
Tension between Christians and Muslims has produced bloodshed for a thousand years. Do Muslims hate Christians? Yes, some do. But it is a tiny minority. Even that minority cannot be barred from the category of neighbors, whom Jesus commands his followers to love. He demonstrated this same kind of unconditional love as he looked down upon the men who had driven spikes through his hands into a cross and asked God the Father, “forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
The teaching and example of Jesus allows no room for his followers to hate anyone, even to return hatred for hatred. Regardless of how one interprets the Koran and Islamic theology, Christians should love and care for their Muslim neighbors like anyone from any other cultural, political, ethnic or religious group. This kind of love distinguishes Jesus and his followers from all other religious adherents.
As Pastor Stone and other Heartsong members welcomed their Muslim neighbors each night during Ramadan, they received deep gratitude with tears of appreciation. In that block of Memphis there is no room for hatred and violence, room only for love and peace.