It will not surprise regular readers of this blog that I believe racism is one of the core dysfunctions gutting American society. It also won’t shock the world that I’m convinced American racism is directly tied to the inability of Christians, our nation’s largest religious group by far, to deal with their history of, and their ongoing participation in, forms of racial oppression.
Such forms have sometimes been overt. For example:
Forced conversions of indigenous peoples to Christianity by European invaders
Enslavement of indigenous peoples and Africans
Ethnic cleansing of Native nations from their homelands
The founding of the Southern Baptist Convention to preserve slavery
Genocides of Native tribes
Ban on Chinese travel to the U.S.
Native boarding schools
Jim Crow laws
Japanese American incarceration
Government-imposed sterilizations and experiments on people of color
At other times, the forms are masked by institutions or by rule-of-law rhetoric. For instance:
Excessive force disproportionately used against African American men
Excessive minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders
Neglect of the health and environmental concerns of people of color
Propagation of the “welfare queen” myth
Cruel immigration “enforcement” actions
Mass deportations of previously protected refugees
The admitted Muslim ban
A refusal to condemn the alt-right and white nationalism
Millions of Christians through our nation’s history have been complicit in these horrible deeds, whether by active means or by silent shrugs. And until modern American Christians find a way to resolve the massive racial rifts among themselves, America as a whole will not.
I say this not out of a sense of American Christian exceptionalism. Rather, it’s because of the sheer numbers of American Christians and their influence on American society, both for better and worse. America continues to struggle with its original sin, racism, in large part because American Christians do.
“Something of a generational gap seemed to emerge among the attendees over the question of whether the Church should seek to rise above contentious political questions or address them head on. With a few exceptions, the older, white cohort stressed civility and unity. What the movement needed, they said, was a gentler evangelicalism that reached across partisan aisles for the common good. Others, especially the leaders of color, stressed repentance; there could be no real unity without white evangelicals explicitly confronting the ways they had participated in the degradation of persons of color and women. They contended that white evangelical churches and organizations had for decades supported a political agenda that deemed unborn lives more sacred than living black lives.”
It doesn’t appear that any consensus was forged on race, though it is encouraging that a handful of Christian leaders have begun talking about it across racial, gender, and generational lines. But what happens from here is unclear.
What is clear is that what ails American Christians is much bigger than Donald Trump, though it cannot be fully discussed without addressing his highly influential role in the current situation. He has frequently denigrated people of color, particularly those born in another country, and has bent over backwards to not criticize white supremacists. He often has stoked Americans’ fears of foreigners with weapons of mass destruction and said very little about angry white men who have taken dozens of lives with their own legally purchased weapons of mass destruction. His policies have uplifted the wealthy at the expense of the poor, disproportionately impacting minorities. And few white evangelical leaders have boldly called him out on these.
It’s one of the most underreported stories in the world: Muslims shielding Christians from terrorists. From Cameroon, Egypt, Kenya, Pakistan, and other countries, accounts have trickled out, telling how Muslims have risked their lives to protect their Christian friends and neighbors. In Kenya, one Muslim man, a father of four with a fifth on the way, actually lost his life after helping to save Christians from gunmen calling themselves “al-Shabaab,” or “The Youngsters.”
The man’s name was Salah Farah, and he had been an elementary school teacher. Before he died in surgery for his bullet wounds, when asked why he put himself in harm’s way, he said, “People should live peacefully together. We are brothers.” He added, “I ask my brother Muslims to take care of the Christians so that the Christians also take care of us …. Let us help one another and let us live together peacefully.”
As a Christian, I am deeply touched by these stories. But I can’t help wondering why Christians in the U.S. have done so little, seemingly, to protect Muslims against hate speech, harassment, and violence. In fact, some Christians seem to be among the worst offenders when it comes to spewing anti-Muslim sentiment.
It all makes me want to be a better ally to my Muslim friends and neighbors. And it strengthens my commitment to teach my daughters how to support them, too.
Some folks call this “teaching tolerance.” I understand what they’re trying to convey, but I’ve never felt comfortable with the word tolerance because it sounds like you’re just putting up with someone else. I know that we can do much better than that.
That’s one of the main reasons my wife and I took our girls to a mosque this past April as part of a church group. I had arranged the group’s visit with Annan, a Muslim friend of mine with whom I used to do homeless advocacy work. The trip was the third in a series of back-and-forth visits between folks from my church and her mosque.
Though all four of us in my family are Christians, my wife and I want our daughters to understand at least some of the basic tenets of their friends’ and neighbors’ faiths. I think they’re getting it. We’ve talked with them about what we and Muslims believe that’s similar and different. We’ve explained, for instance, why Auntie Annan wears a hijab, the headscarf used by millions of Muslim women around the world.
Yet sadly, we’ve also had to explain that Muslims are being bullied in our country. So we’ve told them that though we differ with Muslims about some things, we need to stand up for them and their rights.
It’s too easy for us non-Muslims to forget what Muslim Americans have endured in recent years, so let’s take a quick look back.
Ever since 9/11, Muslim Americans have been treated differently. This is especially true for those who demonstrate their devotion outwardly in ways that are more apparent. This includes, for example, wearing hijabs (for women) or growing out beards (for men). But just having a name that sounds Middle Eastern, or even simply looking like someone who comes from the Middle East or South Asia, has made many Americans the victims of ugly, Islamophobic responses.
This has taken on numerous forms. Muslim Americans have had to deal with frequent suspicious looks and whispers, as well as with the realization that people are often keeping their distance from them in public spaces. Many Muslim families report that their kids have been called terrorists by other kids at school, and their teachers did nothing about it.
A few years back, Annan and I were co-hosting an outdoor film screening of HBO’s Homeless: The Real Motel Kids of Orange County, along with our friends and colleagues with the Anaheim Poverty Task Force. A number of folks from Annan’s mosque came out for the event. But as the evening went on we heard that someone had said out loud, “I don’t want to sit next to these Muslim women.” It was a blight on what was otherwise a powerful evening.
Many Muslim women report outright harassment, like getting screamed at and told to go back to their countries by other customers in stores. Numerous Muslims have been profiled at airports. Some have been stalked in their communities.
A number of mosques have been graffitied with anti-Muslim statements; some have been set on fire. And some Muslims have been murdered in acts of hate that are rightly also called acts of terrorism.
And if things weren’t bad enough, along came the presidential candidacies of Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz. Trump has especially poured rhetorical gasoline on the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment. Among the things he has proposed:
Everyone – men, women, and children – fleeing the war in Syria should be barred from finding refuge in the U.S.
All Muslims should be barred from traveling to the U.S., and Muslims who are American citizens, if traveling abroad, should not be permitted to re-enter.
Surveillance of Muslim communities must increase.
The government should close some mosques.
Muslims in the U.S. must register with the government.
He also has declared repeatedly that he saw thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheering the destruction that took place on 9/11, a claim that has been shown to be false. And in a discussion about his views on Muslims, when first asked whether he would have opposed the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War 2, he refused to say “no.” This begs the question of whether he would consider similar action against Muslims.
Things got even worse after December 2 of last year. That’s when a husband and wife, claiming devotion to the terrorist network ISIS, murdered fourteen people and wounded twenty-two others in San Bernardino, California, just an hour away from where I live.
Standing with Muslims
According to friends of mine, the Muslim American community had already been facing unprecedented levels of hate speech and harassment, even worse than in the weeks right after 9/11. The attack in San Bernardino guaranteed that things would get still worse, due to the inevitable jump in anti-Muslim hate crimes.
I contacted Annan and asked, as I had in the past, “How can I help?” This time, I added, “I no longer have my own pulpit, but I do know several ministers.” Annan suggested a group visit to her mosque, which I had first visited several years before.
A week later, she and two of the mosque’s imams, Mohammed and Zuhair, welcomed my wife and me and several local Christian ministers for a warm and very educational gathering. As they showed us around their facilities and then sat with us in conversation, they answered every question we asked about Islam and the fear that has been felt within the Muslim community. We expressed our desire to stand with them in solidarity and support.
That led to a visit to my church the next month by Annan and her friend Yousuf. They presented a basics-of-Islam workshop and discussion during lunch. I was thrilled that forty of my small church’s adults stayed well into the afternoon to learn from them about Islamic core beliefs and practices. We went on to discuss common misconceptions about Islam and what life is like in America these days for the Muslim community.
Their time with us led to a visit to the mosque three months later by around 20 people from our church. For many in the group, including my daughters, it was their first ever visit to a mosque.
We were welcomed warmly by Annan and one of the mosque’s new imams, Jamaal. As always, they gave us every opportunity to ask questions about the teachings and devotional practices we saw and heard. We asked things like:
Why does everyone remove their shoes before entering the main prayer hall?
What is the meaning of the Arabic call to prayer?
Why do men and women pray in separate areas?
What is the significance of the hijab?
And what’s an appropriate greeting for a Muslim member of the opposite sex?
It was a wonderful time, during which our church members learned a lot. And it was another precious step in my girls’ education in listening to, empathizing with, and supporting people of other faiths.
The Truth About Muslims
For me, being a feminist father means empowering my daughters with knowledge, experiences, and relationships so they’ll learn to be loving, understanding, and supportive toward people who are different from them. This definitely includes people of other religious beliefs and practices.
As my daughters grow older, I’ll teach them other things I’ve learned from my personal experiences with Muslims. Some of these may be over their heads right now, but over the next few years, I’ll help them understand that:
Most Muslim Americans do not consider the terrorists to be Muslims at all, especially because they violate the most central Islamic teachings about kindness to others and the prohibition against murder.
Most Muslim Americans despise the terrorists. I would, too, if there were people hijacking the name of my religion to do horrific deeds!
The terrorists’ most frequent targets aren’t Christians, Jews, Americans, or Europeans. Their most frequent targets are Muslims. They have killed many, many more Muslims globally than people from any other group.
Muslim Americans annually give millions of dollars to charities, especially to organizations that help people in poverty. Where I live in Orange County, California, there is no faith community that does more to feed and support the poor and homeless than the congregation at Annan’s mosque. They truly live out their compassion. And Imam Mohammed told me, “I really think we could be doing more!”
Some people claim that Islam is inherently violent and unsuited for American society. But the same criticisms can be made against Christianity, which few people say the same about. The critics point to certain verses in the Qur’an yet overlook the Christian Old Testament commands to commit genocide. They also claim that Islam was spread by the sword, overlooking the spread of Christianity by both sword and musket throughout the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
What’s the Deal with Christians?
I don’t know for sure why Christians as a whole have not made much of an effort to stand up for Muslim Americans who are being oppressed and terrorized. But I do have hypotheses.
One has to do with evangelism. Some Christians feel uneasy with Muslims because both Christianity and Islam are evangelistic faiths, placing a high value on conversions. These Christians feel like they’re in a sort of spiritual battle against Muslims for the souls of humanity. They may tend to see Muslims as Muslims first, and not as people.
But despite the evangelistic ethos of both Christians and Muslims, there must be a space for respect, kindness, love, and friendship, regardless of the differences in beliefs.
Muslims around the world have stepped up to help Christians oppressed by killers claiming to do Allah’s will.
Will America’s Christians return the favor – as Salah Farah hoped – by protecting Muslims against their oppressors, some of whom are Christians themselves?
Will Americans of every religious or non-religious background stand with Muslims against the hate?
There is no time to lose. A Cal State-San Bernardino study, released just last week, reported that hate crimes against Muslims in California doubled after the terrorist murders in San Bernardino and Trump’s subsequent rhetoric. One of the lead researchers said, “The study shows statements by political leaders can be followed by distinct changes in hate crime incidents.” By the Huffington Post’s count, there have been around 100 hate crimes, as defined legally, against Muslims in the U.S. since just last November.
I, for one, will do my best to stand up for Muslims, teaching my daughters to do the same.