I find it deeply ironic that one of the stereotypes that many Americans hold about Islam is that it is a “violent” religion.
This week in America, a white supremacist walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and shot six people dead, wounding three others; a mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burned to the ground by an act of arson (the second in a month); and a mentally retarded man was executed by the state of Texas, even though the Supreme Court had previously ruled such executions as violations of the 8th Amendment.
And all this coming just a few weeks after a man walked into a movie theater in Colorado, flush with 6,000 rounds of ammunition and semi-automatic weapons, and shot twelve people dead.
Who is being violent to whom?
One of the reasons I decided to observe Ramadan was to stand in solidarity with the Muslims in my community, because I perceived a real, though hidden, threat against their place in our nation. I want to do so even more now, after this latest burst of violence. And I think it is my duty as a Christian leader to do so publicly.
Until the day comes that all American Christians are vocal in their support of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, etc. to practice their religion freely, then it is necessary for us to stand beside them. All religious freedom is at stake when one particular group’s religion (or lack of religion) is under attack. Clearly, there is a strain of intolerance, mistrust, and misinformation in America towards people of the Muslim faith.
The source of violence, I believe, is fear. People arm themselves when they are afraid, and when they bear arms, they find it more likely to use them. People close themselves off from others when they fear others; they build gated communities, hire security guards, and cut off access.
But this response of hiding behind a fortress does little to reduce violence – it prolongs the crisis, allowing the fear to fester, building slowly until it erupts into physical acts of destruction.
Let me speak to my Christian brothers and sisters for a moment: have we not been told not to fear repeatedly by Jesus Christ? Have we not been admonished to love with open hearts, to show hospitality to the stranger? Do we not read the words in our own scripture, “Perfect love casts out fear”? What do we have to fear?
Fear is not an adequate response for the children of God. Instead, we are called to love. And it is impossible to love while afraid.
The only way to break out of our fear is to confront it. And the simplest, most concrete way I can think to do this when we find ourselves afraid of certain kind of people, is to get to know those kinds of people!
Who are you afraid of? Muslims? People with turbans on their head? Young African-American men? Gays and lesbians? White skinheads?
The answer is simple: step out of your home and walk around your neighborhood. Take notice of the people who live near you, work near you, attend school with you. Reach out intentionally and make new friends. Get to know people you never thought you would want to know. Get to know the very people you fear.
Simple, isn’t it?
I am perfectly aware that there are people in this world who are afraid of me, because I am a member of the dominant religion of a very powerful country. I understand their reflexive fear. But I would never want someone to judge me on such a basis, or to make assumptions about my motivations, my character, or my intentions.
All I want is for the chance to be heard on my own terms. I desire that you get to know me for who I really am, that you hear from my own lips what I believe about God, how I pray, what I hope.
This is the same thing that my Muslim brother wants.
Before you cower in fear, before you rush to judgment about the nature of “those people’s” religion, before you pick up your gun and retreat behind your bunker, listen to him for a few minutes. Share a cup of coffee. Relax. Breathe deep.
Let the peace of God wash over you.