It is hard for us as Brethren to understand what Muslims in our community currently experience, because as a group we Brethren fit very comfortably into the cradle of American, Christian culture. It is hard for us to understand what it feels like to be targeted because of our faith and branded as dangerous outsiders in our own country.
Imagine if you arrived at church one Sunday and found “patriots” with assault rifles and demonstrators with anti-Brethren slogans standing on the sidewalk in front of the church. Imagine if a high percentage of Brethren children experienced bullying incidents at their schools because of their and their parents’ faith.
Imagine if you turned on your TV set one day to see a news story about three Brethren students being shot and killed because one of their neighbors objected to their faith and their clothing.
Imagine if one of your neighbors made silhouettes depicting a man with a rifle aimed at a Brethren kneeling, and posted them in his front yard as a visible display of his disdain for you and your faith community.
Imagine if you watched politicians selling fear and hatred directed at your faith community in exchange for votes. Imagine that the front-running candidate of one of the two major parties in this country advocated registering every Church of the Brethren member, closing down “troublesome” Brethren churches, and not allowing any more Brethren to come into the country.
Imagine if a member of the Brethren faith community stood up silently as a peaceful protest at a political rally only to be thrown out amid the jeers and taunts of a howling mob.
Imagine if you were born and grew up in the United States, but are told over and over again that everything you have grown up believing is “of the devil” and that you should go back where you came from.
Imagine how you would feel if you watched a political town hall meeting and saw a man stand up and say, “We have a Brethren problem in this country,” followed by loud, sustained applause.
Imagine if the heresies and atrocities of your worst enemies were used by the larger society to define you, your family, and your local faith community.
If we can put ourselves into this challenging picture, then we might understand what our neighbors and fellow Americans in the Muslim community face every day, and we might be able to understand why they need our love, protection, and support. We are all God’s children, and in that important sense we are all our brothers and sisters. In addition, we are all Americans, with the same values, hopes, aspirations, and rights.
Elsewhere in the world, Christians are being targeted. Brethren faith communities, along with other Christians, are targeted and persecuted in Africa and the Middle East. This may lead some to see religious persecution and terror attacks as a war between Christianity and Islam, but most Muslims see these actions as enacted by a relatively few, vicious, fundamentalist heretics whose beliefs and actions are abhorrent to the vast majority of Muslims. What doesn’t always make the news is the compassion of people of other faiths for their Christian neighbors.
To be clear, the point here is not to debate the relative merits of Christianity versus Islam, nor is it to rehash history. Both Christians and Muslims have committed their share of atrocities in the past and present. Islam, like Christianity, takes many different forms around the world. Islam in Indonesia, for example, is practiced very differently from the way Islam is practiced in Saudi Arabia, and both of those are very different from the way Islam is practiced in the United States. In both Christianity and Islam the lines between culture and religion are often blurry.
There is a toxic paradigm finding its way into contemporary American Christian thought that identifies all American Muslims as “bad guys.” I wonder, if Jesus were teaching with parables today would he use a Muslim in place of a Samaritan in his parable of the Good Samaritan? I think he might.
Furthermore, America’s best defense against domestic terrorism by misguided individual extremists is an American Islamic community that is well integrated and accepted into the larger American society. Demonizing Muslim Americans, thereby pushing them out of mainstream American culture and causing them to live in fear of their own country, is not the way to do that.
The important point is that locally as well as in the United States generally, Muslims are living in fear of being targeted, bullied, and discriminated against because of their faith.
So what do I hope my fellow Brethren will do? Just be Christians! We have to walk the walk before we can talk the talk. Don’t allow hate speech against Muslims and other vulnerable minorities to go unchallenged. Show friendship when the opportunity presents itself. Separate the disagreements you have with Islam (the religion) from Muslims (our neighbors). Treat others as you and your family would want to be treated. If God does give you the opportunity to discuss your faith with a Muslim friend, do so with love and respect and let God change hearts as God wills.
Last Easter, Pope Francis washed feet much as we do at love feast. He washed the feet of refugees of many faiths: Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, and Coptic Christians. When Christ told us to love each other as “I have loved you” (John 13:34), he meant an all-inclusive love crossing religious and cultural boundaries. Are we up to that challenge? With God’s help I think we are.
Dean Johnston is a member of Peoria (Illinois) Church of the Brethren. He recently attended a community event at the Islamic Foundation of Peoria with a brief tour of their mosque and a number of speakers, including civic leaders and clergy from the Christian and Jewish communities around Peoria.