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Letter to a Christian Friend

February 6, 2011

If he watches al-Jazeera, the Muslim preacher sees Muslims and Christians arm in arm to overcome a brutal tyrant kept in power in part by a foreign country whose majority citizens claim to be church-going Christians.

Of course you have fears.

The fear that without proper vigilance we might all somehow come to live under an Islamic theocracy is widespread in the US and Europe, having replaced in the popular imagination the fear I grew up with, that without proper vigilance we might all end up living under a communist regime. Very few people want to live under a theocracy anywhere in the world. Every poll shows that most people in the world—including Middle East states—want freedom and self-determination.

Historical arguments to justify your fears—claims that Islam is a religion of violence and Christianity isn’t— don’t hold up. Yes, the history of Islam is filled with those who conquered in its name, but so is Christianity from Constantine I on. And both histories are filled with violence among and between co-religionists as well.

Since you are addressing this problem from a Christian perspective, let me offer a Christian answer.

Today’s liturgy, read aloud from scripture in hundreds of languages by 1 billion Christians around the world–including in Egypt–are Isaiah 58:7-10, 1 Cor 2:1-5, and Mat 5: 13-16.

Isaiah speaks to the fundamental duties of God’s people to care for others. Do not come to me fasting in sackcloth and ashes and ask me to forgive your wickedness, God says through the prophet, rather “this is the fasting I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of their yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke.”

Matthew’s gospel reminds us that Christians must carry out these duties openly as a people, so that all will see them and they will make the world a better place. “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its flavor, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under foot.”

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”

So let me try to relate these scriptures to the Muslim preacher who shocked you by saying, “Christianity has nothing to offer us.”

What evidence does he have to think otherwise? The United States, the world’s only superpower, proudly proclaims itself as a Judeo-Christian nation and is recognized as a Christian nation by most Muslims. If we are, in fact, a Christian nation, we are supposed to be the salt of the earth, the city on the hill, the light of the world by whose actions others can glorify the heavenly Father, as in today’s scripture.

So what do Muslims see this Christian nation doing? Rather than releasing those bound unjustly, we sell their rulers both yoke and thong. If he watches al-Jazeera, the Muslim preacher sees Muslims and Christians arm in arm to overcome a brutal tyrant kept in power in part by a foreign country whose majority citizens claim to be church-going Christians. If he watches CNN he sees talking heads speculating on whether it is in our national interest to support democracy or whether we should “support this SOB because he’s our SOB.”

US news media talk endlessly about the Muslim Brotherhood as a jihadist organization that might threatens us; the Muslim preacher is more likely to think first about the clinics they run, mosques they build, hospitals they fund and job banks they provide.

Where are our works for Egypt’s poor and oppressed? Certainly not in the tear gas canisters proudly emblazoned “Made in the USA” that were used against peaceful protesters. Last year the US gave Egypt, a country in which millions live on $2 per day or less, $250 million in aid for poverty relief, education and health care. This would be more impressive if we had not also given them $1.5 billion (six times as much) in military aid.

You also quote this Muslim preacher as having said “We plan to use your western democracies to take over the world.” This does sound goofy, as you say; I suspect it is a bad translation of what he meant to say.

I think he meant this: Like Christianity, Islam is a missionizing religion that seeks eventually to convert everyone. I’ve spoken with sheikhs who have asserted to me that the West is spiritually and morally bankrupt, and that these countries therefore cannot long survive. When they collapse, people will inevitably turn to Islam because Christianity will have been proven false. Militant jihad may or may not hasten this process, and may or may not be justified, depending on the theologian.

If we want them to think differently, we cannot do it by suppressing them. Rather, we would need to show them that the West is not spiritually and morally bankrupt, and that Christianity does indeed have something to offer the Islamic world.

Every argument I have heard against supporting freedom and democracy in Egypt is rooted in fear. Fear that Egypt’s democratic experiment will fail, fear that Egypt will get an Islamist government inimicable to US interests, fear that prices will rise at American gas pumps.

Fear drives Christians into behaviors that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, pass the test of “what would Jesus do?” Fear drove the last administration into the longest, most expensive war in US history because a Muslim-majority nation might develop weapons of mass destruction and then might use these hypothetical weapons on an ally or might pass them on to a terrorist group to use against us.

Fear drove the two administrations before that into crushing sanctions on Iraq that eventually contributed to the death by starvation of some 100,000 people, because without that economic chaos the country might develop weapons of mass destruction which it then might … oh but we’ve covered that.

It seems clear to me that scripture calls on Christians to put aside their fears (variations of “be not afraid” occur more than 100 times in the Bible) and replace fear with faith and hope. They are supposed to do what is right. then deal with any negative consequences.

For if our civilization is “thrown out and trampled underfoot” as Matthew’s gospel warns, it will not be because of the actions of Islamic governments or terrorists; it will be because the US has ceased to heed the scriptures so many Americans claim to live by, and become a hidden light, a tasteless salt, a city of darkness.

For “how does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help?” (1 John 3: 17)

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