Imagine you’re in an evangelical church. You’ve just listened to a band play songs about God’s love. You’ve never been to this church before–you might not even be a Christian–but the music’s good and your friends said that the pastor was pretty cool. He comes out on stage, wearing skinny jeans and a tshirt, and opens the sermon with a video and begins to speak about the things that God never said. Then, seemingly out of no where, he shouts adamantly into the microphone “I am here to tell you that ISLAM IS NOT A PEACEFUL RELIGION.” He speaks in capital letters and italics, and you’re left wondering what the hell just happened. You hear nothing about the rest of the things he said, I mean, I sure didn’t. I was finally sitting in on a service of the church I’ve been doing photography for for the past year, and unfortunately for said Pastor, I have a degree in Middle Eastern Studies. The email exchange that followed told much more about the state of evangelical interfaith dialog than I could have ever imagined.
So, here’re my guidelines for what to do when your faith leader says something incredibly islamophobic:
1) Confront them about what they said. If it sounded hateful, ignorant or bigoted, it probably was. They need to hear that someone was listening and thought it was inappropriate. I wrote on the back of a comment card that the name “Islam” actually means peace, specifically the peace that comes through submission to the Lord. That Khadija, the wife of the Prophet, was a Christian, and likely greatly influenced the Prophet’s beliefs before and after the Recitation. Throughout Islamic history, meaning the Islamic empires, Christians and Jews were a protected class (called “People of the Book” ′Ahl al-Kitāb)) that were not required to convert, but were the sole groups permitted to continue their faith largely shielded from persecution–and the current killing of Christians for being Christian was a relatively new change (we’re talking in the last 100 years kind of change). I even made a Facebook post about it, because I was so completely overwhelmed by the inappropriateness of the statement: But a couple days later things took a turn. I received this email from the Pastor: I’m not going to lie, I was incensed. I’m misguided about my understanding of Islam? Are you kidding me? You know nothing about me! The only thing I attempted to explain to you was basic facts about the history of Islam. He may have me at my misguidedness of the Bible; I’m Jewish. Us Jews can’t possibly understand the Bible–despite the fact that we wrote the vast majority of it. But unfortunately for him, I also happen to be getting my Masters in Religion, with a focus on History–and I also happened to be taking a trip to Israel where I was able to ask a leading scholars from numerous universities and yeshivas their thoughts on his asinine comments. 2) Do your research. I was lucky enough to already know a lot about Islam, but a lot of people don’t. Make sure you know the basics of the faith. Speak to friends who are Muslim, Imams, or a local Muslim Community Center. So, after two weeks in Israel, and an intense amount of study: You’d think this would be the end of it. I explained my history with the topics; I tried to explain that his exegesis was just blatantly false, at least by those that do not have a desire to find any point possible to denigrate Islam; and I calmly pointed out each piece of information from leading scholars (many from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem who were more than happy to discuss them with me). You would think that in the face of actual facts, rather than heated rhetoric, you would think he could find the humility to admit that he did not know the whole picture. And to the most important point of my email:
I am a firm believer that God’s House is not the place to bring hatred of our neighbors, no matter whom they be, and that if my God is as magnanimous as I purport to believe, I do not need to denigrate the beliefs of others to prove it.
Even with these carefully thought-out words, and good intent, this is the response I got. 3) Push back…with grace. Bring all your information to the table. No one likes to be corrected, and no one likes being called a bigot. Try to avoid calling them anything, but do question why they believe these things and lay out the facts as they stand. Did you bother to read what I said? “Clearly those who follow Islam are misguided? And clearly, the world’s greatest manufacturer of terrorism is Islam?” Are you serious?! OR! Or, they are another faith group that just wants the same thing you pretend to want. OR! They are peaceful people who have had hateful people, steal their faith and use it for their perverted desire for evil, not unlike the Klu Klux Klan and Westboro Baptist Church has done to Christianity and extremists have done in Israeli Settlements. Should we hate Christians because they kill people in churches, plant bombs, and call for the overthrow of the government? Should we call Christianity “not a peaceful religion”? 4) If all else fails, leave. Leaving doesn’t mean they won, quite the opposite. My leaving is my vote of no confidence to their bigoted believing pastorate: my gifts can be utilized elsewhere, my opinions have validity, and respect is important. About this point was when I gave up. I cannot be a part of an organization that would allow things like this to be said, for a faith leader to speak to a parishoner this way. No, I’m not a Christian, but I’m married to one, I study them, I know the Christian-ese. Having been unable to find a synagogue I was welcomed at (yay people telling me I’m not Jewish enough), I enjoyed being able to fit into a fit community with people who were OK with the idea that I was Jewish. I enjoy learning about and studying the life of Jesus, as I have always thought he was a fantastic Rabbi. I thought I could find a place to belong, where I could serve in my own way, and avoid culture wars that tear faith communities to bits for biblically unnecessary reasons. It was about here that I finally realized that he was wrong in his sermon. People don’t like Christians because of Jesus; they don’t like Christians because of how they distort the words of someone who was no doubt a great man, for their own perverted reasons. As if on cue, here was the email I received that solidified my belief: And that’s it. That’s how this goes. I sincerely pray this is not the way that he deals with all congregants–especially those who push back on his misguided beliefs, and inappropriate interactions. I will continue to pray for my friends that I met at his church, but if I can ever help it, I will never step foot in his church again. I honestly wonder how any denomination would allow a pastor who acts in this way towards congregants to remain in his position, or how congregants allow him to say such hateful things in a House of God. I suppose I will pray for them as well. For what it’s worth, he later sent me this message on FB, still proving he completely missed the point of our exchange, and only half apologizing for his outrageous behavior. This is why people avoid churches. It’s not Jesus. It’s not the music. It’s not the Word. It’s people who degrade the teachings of the Bible for their own ends: At least he learned to spell my name right by the end of this.
As a side note, if anyone cares to listen to his sermon, albeit a different delivery than the one I listened to, but no less bigoted, here ya go:
Check in around the 17 minute mark.