Sunday, October 7, 2012

Facing Ishmael

 The American South is troubled by the growing presence of Islam.

In a region where even ancient forms of Christianity have been rare, the sudden appearance of Hindus, Buddhists and, above all, Muslims, threatens to unravel our last thread of civility: both toward the immigrants and toward one another.  

Our inboxes are filled with warnings of conspiracies and Islamic domination. People are frightened.  Frightened people frighten other people. There may be real trouble ahead.

The events of September 11, 2001 set this stage, not merely because hundreds of people died but because that eventful day changed how Americans view their society and future.

For four hundred years, Americans were geographically isolated from other world powers. We enjoyed an ascendant role among the less powerful nations of our hemisphere. We had endless land into which to expand.  We rarely felt a need to learn other languages or study other world religions. Other people would adjust to us. That was the way the world worked. We had every reason to believe it was the way the world would always work.

The events of September 11, 2001 destroyed this sense of isolation. What decades of jet travel, the Internet, and geostationary satellite communications systems had failed to drive home became utterly clear in a few short horrifying hours. As we watched the images of foreigners flying planes into our buildings we knew we too were a globalized society. What was once over there was now over here. In fact, there was no more “over there” and “over here.” Everything and everyone was now intimately connected to everyone everywhere at every moment.

Since then, waves of alien people, languages, religions, food and dress have been continually pouring into the American heartland. The tide has unsettled American consciousness and threatened our sense of identity.

We are asking ourselves new questions. What does America look if it is not isolated from the rest of the world? What has globalization done? What can we do to reverse the tide?

At some level, Americans always realized they were a part of a greater entity called Western Civilization. Our grandparents studied Latin, for goodness sakes. Nonetheless, we tended to view knowledge of European history and European languages as something like playing Trivial Pursuit. Such information was impressive but what could one do with it? As for non-European cultures? Well, they seemed like figments of our imagination.  We didn't know anyone who had ever met a Turk or an Inuit.  

All this was especially true in the American South. Our social categories were visible and easy to navigate: White, Black, rich, poor, male, female, Democrat, Republican, Baptist and a scattering of other, minor strands of American Evangelicalism. One could pick from that list the elements that  determined how he or she fit into Southern society. Black, poor and female suggested a certain sort of employment, religious affiliation and place of residence. White, wealthy and Baptist suggested another sort.

What was one to do in such a society with an Arabic-speaking, Coptic pediatrician? Or a Chilean born Roman Catholic Republican? Or an agnostic Hungarian Jew?

Well, one could tolerate such unique characters. He might even enjoy their company, unless, that is, they tried to marry his daughter! The trouble came when people like that began arriving in groups. When a thousand Copts move into a town that didn’t even know such people existed before, it destroys the town’s social categories. If the Copts want to build a church, it means there will be new architecture in town. Looking at a weird doomed covered church like that will upset the people’s sense of identify.

There are only so many alien characteristics a people can handle. 

If a group of Mormons want to build a temple, it will make some people uneasy. However, even though Mormons don’t believe like other Christians, they least speak English. They eat hot dogs. They don’t wear funny clothes. They have names like James and Betty. We can adjust after a while.

The problem gets really serious when a new group looks like the people who are at war with your sons and daughters overseas. It gets even more serious if you believe this group seeks not only to enter and become a permanent feature of your society but is actively plotting to destroy your religion.

I faced this situation before, from the other side. As a part of an Evangelical missionary family in a Roman Catholic nation, we were treated well by people in the large cites. But when we wanted to buy land and build a church in small towns and villages, we often faced popular hostility and bureaucratic passivity. Usually, the people who sold us the land didn’t actually live in the town. Had they lived there, they may not have sold it to us. After all, their neighbors would have been shouting at them about ho the buyers were “American imperialists trying to destroy our traditional way of life.”

The American missionaries in these situations would often sigh and talk among themselves about how in America we had true freedom of religion.  Everyone, even Roman Catholics, could build a church in our country, even in predominately Protestant areas. “Why, this sort of persecution would be unthinkable in our country,” they would say proudly.

It is interesting to watching this situation from the other side. That's the way many Christians are reacting to Muslims.

Don't get me wrong, as an Evangelical Christian, I share the anger of many of my fellow Christians against Islam. Coptic Christians are persecuted in Egypt, or are at very least reminded they are second-class citizens. Saudi Arabia, supposedly an ally of our country, does not have even that much freedom of religion. A Saudi who converts to Christianity should immigrate -- fast! In many Islamic countries it is even dangerous to be the wrong sort of Muslim. Sufis, for example, don’t do well in many Muslim nations. To be a Jew in much of the Muslim world has become truly unthinkable.

So we American Christians push and prod Islamic nations to open their doors, to issue building permits for churches and synagogues, to stop using blasphemy laws to persecute Christians. We send letters to our congressmen about this stuff. We force our politicians to tell us how they will deal with repressive Islamic regimes. We insist that our fellow believers in Muslim countries have freedom to practice their faith as they wish.

Unfortunately, people in Islamic countries often view Christians with the same suspicion as we view Muslims here. Especially in small communities, the presence of a church can irritate someone enough that he decides to burn it down. When he does, it can be difficult to get a building permit to rebuild the church. Local religious leaders in those towns urge their followers to take a stand against the church. It’s the same sort of stuff one hears here, only in reverse. And, the Muslims over there read in their news how Christians are making it difficult for Muslims here. That leads to reprisals against local Christians there, many of whom we would not actually associate with were they to move into our town.

Neither Christians nor Muslims seem to know about the differences between the sects of each religion. Neither seems to acknowledge that we both derive from the same roots: Judaism. Neither seems to understand that we have a common and very intertwined history. Christians seem not to know that Muslims call God Allah because that is how one says God in Arabic, whether one is Muslim, Christian or Jew. Muslins seem not to know that Christians don't really worship three gods. Ignorance of such things allows hot heads among both religious groups to keep stirring the pot.

But all of that aside; as Americans, we allow any Tom, Dick or Harry who wants to do so to start his own church or even his own religion. Scientology is a good example. Even snake handlers have churches. Peyote smokers, Vishnu worshippers, and Rastafarians all get a piece of the action. We shake our heads at each other. We write our books. We make our arguments. But we do not forbid the freedom of any religious group to assemble, worship or build holy sites.

If, as Americas, we believe we have even the slightest contribution to make to the cause of freedom in the world, we cannot afford to deny any group, even one with whom we are especially aggrieved at the moment, the right to worship. If we do, we must stop pressuring Muslim nations to open up freedom for Christians in their countries.

We cannot have it both ways. 

We must learn how to adjust to a globalized American South. 

To make that shift, Christians in the American South must learn to disentangle three things we have historically interwoven:

·      Our traditional culture
·      Our faith, and
·      Our commitment to freedom of religion.

Our traditional culture is still a major component of this society. It is not, however,  the only component of the society. We are still free to enjoy our traditional way of life with those who wish to enjoy it with us. We are not free to impose it on those who do not relate to it.

As for our faith, Christianity transcends all local cultures and eras of time. Although Southern Americans have made wonderful contributions to the Christian faith, Christianity is much bigger than the nation and will outlive it.  We cannot assume that what is advantageous to one is advantageous to the other.  Sometimes we must chose between our faith and our nationalism.
Then, as Americans, we must affirm, in deed as well as word, that our constitution guarantees freedom of religion, to everyone: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians and atheists. If we work to erode this right for others, we are eroding it for ourselves.

The right way to defend Christianity is not with a gun, or by placing unfair roadblocks in the path of Muslims to build on land they own, or to put up signs mocking their religion. Our Lord told us how to defend the faith: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 

Given that, the right way to face a Muslim is probably over a hot cup of coffee. 


BC said...

Love ya, Dan, but your logic, along with the premises on which you base it is both presumptive and naive, and from a variety of perspectives. I would love to discuss this at length, but would hope to do so on a more private level. Only the closing statement about coffee could be considered reasonable, but in light of the Islamic principle of al-Taqiyya, it may also be ineffective.

Kim Gambino said...

Thank you Pastor Dan for your words. Thoughts like these have been on my heart for a long time. "For God so loved THE WORLD..." We in turn are to share His love even with those that we consider unlovely, wrong, haters and hellions. We no longer have a "comfort zone" to retreat to. Life is real, it is in our faces and there is no escaping it, not even in the American South. I have Christian friends in Brooklyn, New York who founded the "Brooklyn Arab-American Friendship Center" reach out to people that others even many "Christians" treat with hatred and rudeness and they love them, help them to learn English with an ESL program, provide support and through love and friendship have led even Islamic people to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ over a good cup of coffee! Thanks for sharing your heart and wisdom.