A conversation at the Commission on Religion & Race in Milwaukee this past weekend brought to mind three encounters — two from my time in Tennessee and one since coming to Wisconsin. About eight years ago, I got into a conversation about peace, and what it means to be a peacemaker in these scary modern times. The two men and one woman I spoke with made the following points: 1) peacemaking should be a high value regardless of one’s religious convictions — even those who do not have a religion benefit from peaceful coexistence; 2) those who defend violence in the name of faith make a mockery of faith and do inestimable damage to the majority who do not subscribe to their thinking; 3) that often the practice of a few defines the faith of the many; and 4) that it is tragic that extremists continue to inflict such violence on our world when there is so much potential for good.
The second conversation took place a few years later as I sat with professors and students at Starbucks talking about an abortion clinic bombing perpetrated by Christian women and supported by a local clergyman. One professor and his student were furious with the incident. “It makes us all look crazy,” lamented the professor. “We do so much good for so many people in so many places and it takes one fanatic and a rag-tag team of fundamentalists a moment to destroy it all. We get blamed for being extremists, but look at what the “acceptable” wing of the Christian church does?” The student chimed in, “I do not wish to be judged solely on my religion. I would never do anything as unholy and evil as take another life, yet I am viewed with suspicion because of my beliefs — beliefs that others assume I share with those who do violence.” The whole group agreed that it is a tragedy when the lunatic fringe of any faith defines faith for us all.
I listened recently to a husband and wife talk about the sanctity of the family. With tears in their eyes they challenged the current cultural values that make divorce, abortion, domestic violence and child abuse so prevalent. They decried the rise in the use of mood-enhancing drugs and sadly shared their sorrow at the rise of suicide. The focus of the event was to recommit to a higher standard of family values and to stop allowing the dominant culture to undermine the values of our faith. They called for covenants to resist temptations and put family first. They urged the audience to return to the teachings of the prophets and of Jesus. While the thinking was a bit rigid and dogmatic, it was quite obviously heartfelt and real.
Now, of course, all three of these conversations were with Muslims, not Christians. I have yet to meet a Muslim that condones in any way the violence committed by extremists. Those I know are advocates for peace, justice, morality, compassion, and hope. Muslims of my acquaintance tend to be very positive and upbeat, critical of Western cultural values (like most evangelical Christians), and willing to work together to make things better for everyone. Yes, I have seen the horror stories on TV and have witnessed the shocking images of the extremists — the same media that takes such glee in focusing on any and all transgressions of Christians as well. The mythos of Islam in these United States that is grounded in misinformation, deceptions, fiery rhetoric, lies, and manipulative images is so sad, and it brings to mind another conversation I had in Austria in 1998. There I met a group of students and had a spirited and energetic discussion — until I told them I was a United Methodist pastor. When they heard I was a Christian minister, they grew quiet and sullen. I asked them directly what I had said to offend them, and one replied, “We do not care for your attitude toward black people. It is offensive to us that your Ku Klux Klan is allowed to attack and kill black people in the name of Jesus. You should be ashamed of yourself!” I was taken aback and stuttered, “I’m not part of the Ku Klux Klan! Whatever gave you that idea?” Upon further discussion, I found out that these young student’s opinions and understanding had been shaped by their media, which took great glee in broadcasting examples of American bigotry and violence. They took the UM cross-and-flame logo to be a sign of the burning cross, and the connection between Klan and Christianity was a part of every report they ever heard.
This was an excellent object lesson for me. I am deeply sceptical of any narrow depiction of any faith I witness on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc. I do not want people around the world to define American Christianity by the actions and practices of the KKK — as I am sure Muslims do not want their faith defined by us by the actions of their extremist fringe element. Are there dangerous Muslims out there? Sure, just like there are dangerous Christians and Jews. These people are not violent BECAUSE of their faith; they are violent in spite of it. They are people who have not been transformed by the best of their religion, so they live out the worst of it. I get so sick of listening to all the hate-mongering gossip and innuendo about “those” people — as if they are really so different from “us.” These artificial divisions do not serve us well in either the short- or the long-term.
What will it take to move us from this hostile, fearful ignorance to a place of collaboration and community? I have found one way and one way only: relationship. We need to meet those who are different from us, get to know them, demythologize the labels, and find common ground from which to build a future. As categories of people, Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc., don’t come off too well. But on a personal, case-by-case basis? I know wonderful, lovely, gracious, honest, compassionate men and women of integrity who are Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. The only label I’ve found that adequately describes them is FRIEND.