The North Carolina Pastor Network financed this billboard last month. When asked about the billboard, one pastor mentioned he doesn’t know any practicing Muslims, but this shouldn’t offend them. He also emphasized Christianity embraces everyone.
A few months ago, I sat in the home of an Afghan refugee family. I had friends in town and while they chatted with the family, the TV in the corner caught my eye. Our hosts had recently changed the channel from PBS cartoons to the local Christian station. It was showing the infamous video of the Twin Towers falling and then a Psalm flashed on the screen – The Lord will avenge those who hurt his righteous.
The Christian program then showed Osama Bin Laden’s picture and panned to Afghanistan. I saw the country and people I loved so much. Men behind carts, roasting meat to sell. Women in long, blue burqas with cloth billowing behind them as they walked down the street. Young kids, who looked so much like my students, playing soccer along the road. Images I had originally seen from camera phones were now displayed across a flat screen.
The program introduced us to two men, whom they called missionaries, giving us their names. I found this strange, since all of the missionaries I knew who went to this country kept their identities incredibly private, not only for their personal security but for the safety of the nationals they worked with. The program would reveal these two men were not missionaries to Afghans but rather were sent to Afghanistan to minister the troops and check on the progress of the war.
My stomach dropped, not because our soldiers don’t need Christians to minster to them, but the implication that was being cast throughout this show – God was on the side of America and will physically harm anyone who harms Americans. I was sitting in an Afghan home, surrounded by people who called me “sister”, “aunt”, and “lovely”, people who have made me meal after meal, and this show had just cast them, Afghan Muslims, as America’s enemy and thus, God’s enemy.
This program, failing to distinguish between the terrorist organization that orchestrated 9/11 and actual Afghans, depicted how God will judge all Muslims for what happened on 9/11. How was I supposed to tell this family about God’s forgiveness now? What if they were secretly interested in Christianity and watched this channel to learn more, only to see this program? Would they even believe that God loves them?
A few weekends ago, a known white supremacist harassed two women on a train in Portland, one who was wearing a hijab. When three men stood up to him, he attacked them with a knife, killing two and injuring the third. The anger the man showed was not an anger he simply woke up with. We know from his social media and from other videos of him that have since been released, his anger towards those who were different from him was one that intensified over time.
This incident is horrible and tragic and has propelled our city into shock and mourning. But I think there is a connection between the Christian TV program and this man’s thinking. Both saw Muslims as an enemy. Both wanted Muslims out of our country. And while the TV program did not advocate for each of us to personally attack other people, both had included violence.
It is hypocritical of us to condemn the actions of the man on the train and then turn a blind eye to the Islmaphobia in our own places of worship. The casual comments that Muslims are out to kill Americans and not differentiating between Muslims and Islamist terrorists is neither hospitable nor loving. While I’m not implying that everyone who says a negative comment against Muslims or shares an anti-immigrant meme on Facebook is at risk of becoming a murderer, these comments may be empowering someone who is, like the man a few weekends ago.
“In the church as in the world, the time is always right to do right. Racism is sin. Leaders should not take a gradual approach to killing racism just like they should not take a gradual approach to killing any other sin.” – Jemar Tisby
If we want to prevent another attack like the one on the train, we need to confront those who are speaking negatively of Muslims and immigrants. As Tisby writes, just as we call out other sins, we need to call out the sin of racism. Our words carry the power to harm or to heal, to create places of acceptance or places of dismissal.
As with the pastor and the billboard above, often times Christians are oblivious to how our comments come off to Muslims. The above pastor said that Christianity embraces everyone yet, in the same breath, wanted to ban Muslims from immigrating to our country. Our intentions are for love and welcome, yet what is actually communicated is the opposite. By simply asking questions to one another like “Does that statement reflect Christ’s love for the marginalized?” or “Have you tried seeing it from their perspective?”, we can help each other see how our words are affecting those on the outside of our society.
Christians have a long legacy of hospitality and the Bible is full of verses calling us to welcome the foreigner and include those who are different than us. But this year has left me wondering, would a Muslim even feel comfortable walking into a Christian church in America?
Beyond changing how we speak about Muslims, we also need to offer positive images. If you haven’t had the chance to experience the intense love and hospitality of a Muslim, it can be easy to believe they are hateful and violent, because that is the image we see in our entertainment, in the media and from our political leaders. We need to see others through the eyes of Christ and recognize the ways they too are created in the image of God.
One way to do this, is to read one of these books to your children, which can help normalize people of other faiths to them. Another way is to get involved serving within the Muslim community. We are currently in the month of Ramadan, where many Muslims are not only fasting but participating in community service projects. One option is to call your local mosque and see if you could participate in serving alongside them. Both Christians and Muslims have always held strong commitments to helping the poor and this could be a good way to began a friendship and build bridges.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” -Matthew 25:25-36
It is time for the Christian church to repent and turn away from the ways we have failed to show love to our Muslim neighbors. It is time to confront our internal biases and fears. Not because of a political agenda, but because Christ is waiting to meet us, to turn our hearts of fear and self-preservation into love and generosity. Clothed as a refugee, hiding among those marginalized in our society, our Savior is knocking. Will you invite him in?