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Not that kind of Christian

by Thomas W. Goodhue
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Nearly everyone is embarrassed sometimes by the behavior of someone who belongs to their faith community. Sometimes this makes us reluctant to identify with our religious tradition at all. Kanya Tabari Idliby has described eloquently how the brutality of those who claim to follow the Quran prompted her crisis of faith. When a young girl in Somalia reported her rape to the local ‘Sharia Court’ and was stoned to death for supposedly committing adultery, Idliby questioned whether she could remain a Muslim. (Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 38-41) The poet Kathleen Norris, a devout Presbyterian who also is an oblate in a Catholic monastery (someone affiliated with a religious order who has not taken vows to join it), was asked by an interviewer, “Are you a Christian?” Norris sighed and replied thatshe hestitates to say so because  “so many people who publicly identify themselves as Christians are such jerks about it.” (The Cloister Walk, New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, 73) I know what she means.

Nearly every religion has its fanatics and bigots. In recent years, Americans have assumed that most terrorists were Muslims, but more people were killed by home-grown terrorists who claimed to be Christian. Those who think they belong to my tribe slaughtered Jews in Pittsburgh for being pro-immigrant and stormed the Capitol to try to overturn an election, but one rarely hears Christians called terrorists.

Whenever anyone who calls themselves a Muslim commits any atrocity anywhere, Muslim leaders are expected to denounce terrorism—even if their denunciations receive little attention from non-Muslims. But as United Church of Christ pastor Mark Lukens observed, “Why didn’t anyone ask me to disavow Timothy McVeigh?” McVeigh wasn’t really a Christian, of course, but neither was Osama bin Ladin much of a Muslim. Both Jesus and Sigmund Freud suggested that what annoys us most in other people is usually something we cannot accept in ourselves. We complain about the speck in our neighbor’s eye, Jesus said, when we have a log in our own.

As the First Letter of John in the New Testament says, anyone who says ‘I love God’ and hates his brother is lying. Perhaps all of us, whatever our faith, are called to say, whenever anyone attacks someone in the name of our faith, to say,   “Not in my name, you don’t.”

I cannot expect others to repudiate fanaticism in their tradition until I face the offenses committed by members of my tribe. Yes, Christians do suffer persecution in some nations today, but our woes do not begin to equal the offenses committed by those who claimed to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, during the Crusades and the Holocaust. And Protestants and Catholics killed each other with relish during the 16th and 17th centuries, just as they did more recently during “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland.  

I learned during an ecumenical study trip to Ireland, a year before the Good Friday Peace Accords were signed, that the most murderous Protestants and Catholics were often only nominal members of any church. Christians also like to point out that Adolf Hitler was a pagan, not a Christian, which is certainly true but our tribe did too little to oppose the Nazis’ rise to power and we bear responsibility for the centuries of antisemitism that made the Holocaust possible—as we do for how easy it is for neo-Nazis to get their hands on guns today. Many Christians also have a disturbing tendency to accept the death of a few innocent people when our nation is trying to kill a bad guy—or the invasion of countries that never attacked us.

Some members of my tribe fear that Christians are singled out for persecution in lands where all minority communities are at risk. Churches have been bombed in Pakistan, for example, but so have the houses of worship of Hindus, Shia Muslims, Sunnis, Ismailis, and Ahmadiyya. Terrorists in the United States have slaughtered worshipers in Sikh gurdwaras, Jewish synagogues, and Unitarian Universalist fellowships. Sometimes even the past is not safe: the Taliban blew up ancient statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan and a 2000-year-old Jain temple was demolished in Lahore to build a subway line.

Don’t expect this work to be easy—but it is still worth doing. When a troubled young man gunned down dozens of people at the gay-friendly Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, the most comforting words I heard were spoken by Sheikh Ibrahim Negm, an eminent Muslim scholar from Cairo University, at an Interfaith Iftar at the Islamic Center of Long Island, “The victims in Orlando are my brothers and sisters. The man who killed them is not my brother.”

This is the opposite of pretending your faith community has no fanatics: it is embracing those whom your fanatics despise. Christians fail to do this when we simply say that the Nazis were not real Christians. Of course they weren’t, but why did so many Christians fail to defend their persecuted neighbors? Stephen Prothero recalls how he has “found this response terrifying, and still does, since failing to grasp how Nazism was fueled by ancient Christian hatred of Jews as ‘Christ killers’ allows Christians to absolve themselves of any responsibility for reckoning with how their religion contributed to these horrors.” (Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, New York: HarperOne, 2011, 10)

Like Imam Negm, we all should embrace those whom bigots hate. Christianity teaches me to “hate the sin but love the sinner,” but sometimes hating the sin means that we have to say the sinner has left the fold. Anyone who hates immigrants must not read the same Bible I do: mine says to “defend the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant among you.”

Anyone who hates Jews does not know the God of Jesus.

Anyone who hates Muslims does know my God.

And as the First Letter of John in the New Testament says,

Anyone who says “I love God” and hates his brother is lying.

Perhaps all of us, whatever our faith, are called to say, whenever anyone attacks someone in the name of our faith, to say,   “Not in my name, you don’t.”

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