Trying to control security leaks during World War II, the U.S. government made posters warning, “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” I think we may want to create something similar to place in our churches cautioning, “Loose Lips Create Holy Wars.” Specifically, I am amazed at the nonsense I hear some people uttering about Islam. Last fall on HBO, diehard atheists Bill Maher and Dan Harris were talking about Islam when Harris blurted out, “Islam is the motherload of all bad ideas.” What? The next morning NBC foreign correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin wisely responded, “I found it interesting that there were four non-Muslims talking about Islam and four non-Muslim males talking about Muslim women.”
There is simply nothing that replaces getting information from the original source. When I want to know what a Christian feminist thinks, I don’t ask a male pastor. I ask a Christian female feminist. If I want to know what Middle Eastern Muslims think, I don’t ask a Middle Eastern Christian. I ask a Middle Eastern Muslim.
Increasingly, we hear and read commentary that we are engaged in a “war between civilizations.” By that, the commentators implicitly or explicitly mean a holy war between Christianity and Islam. In fact, what we are witnessing is enormous upheaval in the Middle East that is rooted in long-standing political, social and economic problems.
If we want to empower the shrillest and most violent voices in Islam, all we need to do is keep listening to shrill, anti-Islam voices in the U.S. and Europe. These merchants of fear would have us believe that the most unrepresentative parts of Islam are, in fact, representative. If we keep ignorantly misrepresenting Islam as a bunch of religiously inspired terrorists, we will no doubt alienate the vast majority of Muslims who live in places such as Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nigeria.
It is time for reasoned thinking by religious leaders. And we can’t reason alone. Christians, Muslims, Jews and other people of faith need to be in the same room, reasoning together. In my lifetime, I have seen a commitment within the PC(USA) to interfaith dialogue blossom, stagnate and, most recently, disintegrate. I am not talking about dialogue at the national level. Those relationships have always been important more for their symbolic than substantive value. As with most things in the church, world-changing, life-altering ministry has to be done by and through local congregations. So to me, the key question is: Are local Presbyterian congregations reaching out to Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and other faith groups in their communities? Many leaders of interfaith efforts respond, “Less and less.”
In his ministry, Jesus repeatedly challenged stereotypes. He confronted those who declared that Samaritans were uncaring, a leper was dangerous or children should be kept at arm’s length. He knew that stereotypes are dehumanizing and, thus, dangerous. If we are not in dialogue with Muslims and Jews, Buddhists
and Hindus in our local communities, we will inevitably fall into the trap of stereotyping them. At that point, we become the people Jesus criticized.
The last General Assembly called on congregations to get serious about interfaith engagement at the grassroots level. If we accept that assignment, we will become a force defusing the heated rhetoric and gross stereotypes about various religions streaming from the media and, sadly, from some voices within the PC(USA) itself. If it doesn’t happen, we will, no doubt, become a part of the problem.
Interfaith work isn’t a secondary form of ministry to be done after we worship, educate and do mission. It is a core ministry. May the PC(USA) resume its leadership role in creating substantive, sustained interfaith dialogue where it matters: in our communities and congregations.
Yours in Christ,