Mythtaken Identity

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.

25 replies

  1. Thank you Rex! I read the article and have bookmarked it. I found a lot of similarities in trying to understand the old texts.

    I consider the Bible to be infallible, I understand that to refer to the original manuscripts which we do not have. Translations that I consider valid are ones that seek to use scholarship to get as close as possible to the original. Of course that means disagreements. I can live with that.

    It sounds like there are Muslim scholars that struggle with the same issues. Very good. I have learned today. I will let it bounce around in my head and see what emerges.

    Grace and Peace.

  2. My understanding is that the Koran has been kept in Arabic to avoid translation issues. After some web browsing, I see evidence that most Muslims don’t understand spoken or written Arabic. Arabic script is phonetic, just as Latin script. I have very rudimentary understanding of Latin, and am generally good at pronunciation (phonetic reading). The cultural context is usually beyond me. Is it possible that many Muslims have the same relationship to Arabic?

    • Rex,

      Based on a little reading and a few conversations I think Muslims have that same problem. I also think we need to admit that most Christians don’t know much about what our Holy Book says.

      I understand the point of stressing Arabic to keep the translation pure but another issues comes up. I can’t find where I read it but one source I was reading said that the Koran also has different texts. It is not as monolithic as we are lead to believe.

      Grace and Peace.

  3. How did a discussion of the moderate statements of Muslims get around to a discussion of bullying and homosexuality? Interesting train of thought.

    But, back to the original post, I have a question that I ask and I usually don’t get an answer: Have you read the Koran? All of it or just carefully selected portions? Several years ago my teaching assignment was changed from U.S. History to World History from the Roman Empire to The French Revolution. The one topic I was least familiar with was The Rise of Islam. As part of my training I bought a Koran and read it through over the summer. I purchased a translation done by a Muslim and approved by Muslim organizations, at least as far as I could tell. I honestly wanted what I read to be accurate. As I read I compared it to an older translation done by a professor from Oxford.

    My view of Islam is not based on the media. It is not based on anecdotes. It is not based on what “believers” understand. It is based on reading their book. I would not want Christianity judged on the sources listed above nor the “lunatic fringe” as they are called. I challenge you to read the Koran and continue calling it a religion of peace. There may be many wonderful Muslims in the world, but they are not good Muslims in the sense of the Koran.

    One book I read seemed to imply that Muslims who read the Koran did not understand it. That did not make sense to me. I asked one of my Muslim students (after getting permission to ask questions from his parents) if he spoke Arabic. Yes. Did he read the Koran. Yes. Did he understand what he read. No. I was confused. He explained that the Arabic in the Koran was so archaic that modern readers had a hard time understanding it. That made sense to me. They read it like I could read a German book based on my classes in German in High School and college. I would get a word here and there. I might even get the general idea of a sentence. I would not understand what I read.

    I am glad we have good translations in our language. Thank you Tyndale and Wycliffe.

    Grace and Peace.

    • I’ve read two different translations of the Koran. It is both as troubling and as inspiring as the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. It promotes and incites the same love and hostility, the peace and violence, the narrow-mindedness and open-heartedness, the judgment and the grace of our own BIble. It is a piece as open to proof-texting as our own scriptures — and it is used both as a tool to build as well as a weapon to destroy. As a work of literature, it is strange and wonderful (as is our own Bible), and in the hands of hateful, violent, immature people it can be an abomination (as can our own Bible). There are many good Christians in the world, but not good in the sense of the gospels. On balance, they are more like us than they are different — in their faith and in their book.

      • Thank you. I will read your comments with a better understanding.

        I understand your issue about proof texting. That is why I ask if people have read the whole book. I agree with your concern about the misuse of the Bible. People can corrupt just about anything.

        I respectfully disagree with your general sense of similarities though. Obviously the Old Testament has violence but I did not see anything in the Koran that would come close to the OT command to love your neighbor that Jesus quoted, Psalms, or Proverbs. The God of the Bible says we are to leave vengeance to Him. The God of the Koran says believers are expected to attack back.

        I will accept the possibility that I need to read the Koran again.

        Grace and Peace.

      • Thanks for the openness. We can respectfully agree to disagree. I believe that there are many passages in the Koran that call us to peace, kindness, compassion, love of neighbor/the stranger, tolerance, mercy and justice. A major difference in the texts is that we have a division between old and new, and the Koran is a conflation over time. In practice, however, I believe we have many vengeance-minded, “eye-for-an-eye”, wrath of God Christians (take a look at any Left Behind book), who preference the Hebrew scriptures to the Christian and justify their beliefs and behaviors on the OT rather than the NT. In Muslim and Christian circles alike, it all depends on the parts of the Bible you choose to be authoritative and those you choose to ignore/dismiss. In both faith cases, we can make opur Holy books say just about anything we want them to…

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