By now, all are likely aware of the planned Koran burning by pastor Terry Jones which was supposed to take place yesterday. An international media frenzy took place as the news spread that this pastor in Gainesville, Florida had declared September 11th to be “International Burn a Koran Day.” More than a hundred Korans were to go up in flames at the hands of his roughly 50 church members. In the end, this event did not take place. Refreshingly, before President Obama and other political leaders spoke up in opposition to Jones’ idea, large and influential organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals had already done so.
In Jones’ own words, he wanted to make a public statement that radical Islam is dangerous and that Sharia Law is not welcome in America. Jones is now known much more for who and what he opposes than the truth he says he wants to promote. Jones decries those Christians who will not take a bold stand “on issues.” He justified the burning of the Koran by appealing to the story recorded in Acts 19:18-19 of new followers of Christ burning occultic books by which they themselves had once been bound. (It should be noted in Jones’ case that his followers would be burning books belonging to a religion they had never had anything to do with.) Another justification involved appealing to some of Jesus’ radical acts and statements concerning the Pharisees and the Jewish leaders. (Again, it should be noted that in Jones’ case he was not so much taking on false teachers who claim to hold to the truth of the Bible, but rather those belonging to another religion altogether.)
In the end, it also appears that one of Jones’ motives for this whole drama was related to another recent hot-button issue: the proposed community center containing a mosque which is to be built about two blocks away from Ground Zero (the site of the World Trade Center collapse in 2001). The news the last 2-3 days has been saturated with stories about Jones’ attempt to engage a Florida-based imam to help in negotiating a deal with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in New York City to have the project moved to a different location. No such deal appears to be going forward, and even as Jones has at least temporarily abandoned his plan, others, including the infamous Rev. Fred Phelps, have picked it up.
In a way, I’m glad that these two issues (Terry Jones’ aborted plan, as well as the proposed community center in New York) have become so public, and especially that they have been so vigorously discussed in various Christian circles. It’s all been so very revealing. As I’ve paid attention to discussions by professing Christians on Facebook, in the comments sections under various online articles, etc. I’ve seen everything from “we are called to love Muslims just as much as we love everyone else” to “Muslims are the enemy and they need to be sent back to the countries where they came from before this country is destroyed from the inside out.” Amidst the calls to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ among Muslims, which I’m grateful for, there has also been an incredible amount of fear-mongering, anger, and nationalistic pride coming from those who claim to be followers of the Prince of Peace. An example of this can be seen in the 138 comments left so far under J. Lee Grady’s editorial in Charisma Magazine titled “Just Say No to Anti-Muslim Bigotry.”
While I’m glad that these sentiments are being revealed so plainly so that the Church in America might see this darkness (and by that I mean these ungodly attitudes toward Muslims) and hopefully repent, the downside is that all of this is playing out very publicly before the eyes of a watching world. If one peruses the comments left under secular articles online, one will soon find out the reputation that Christians have gained in the eyes of those we ought to be reaching with the message of the gospel. It’s not good, and very little blame should go to Terry Jones. The marriage of the church in America to the US political machine was long established before Terry Jones made headlines in Afghanistan.
A PERSONAL STORY
I’d like to share a recent personal experience in which I came face-to-face with some of the ungodly attitudes I’ve just mentioned. On July 4th of this year I was back in my hometown in Ohio for a one-week visit. That morning I attended a Sunday School class at the Pentecostal church where I grew up and where my parents still attend. My favorite feature of that class is its interactive and participatory style. The topic of the class that day was “Focusing on Christ,” and that indeed happened for a while, but then things took a definitive turn.
One class member (“P”) took a discussion and somehow switched the topic to Muslims and the events of September 11, 2001. In response, the leader of the class obliged him by asking the whole class, “As believers, what should our response be to what happened on 9/11?” I listened in shock as “P” immediately made an appeal to a passage in the book of Joshua where the Israelites were commanded to destroy man, woman, and child, “sparing none” from among the Canaanites. “Yes,” remarked his wife, “just like the book of Psalms talks about dashing the Babylonian children against the rocks.” It became clear that “P” and his wife were indeed using these examples in reference to the ideal response of believers to the worldwide Muslim population.
My sister-in-law, “C,” who was in the class, began to cry as she asked them what she should say to a certain 12-year old boy in the church. This boy was born into a Muslim family. He became a follower of Christ early this year, and within a few months his father also became a believer. His mother remains a Muslim at this time. “C” asked “P” and his wife if she should tell this boy that his mother deserves to die because she happens to be a Muslim. “P” responded by saying (I’m paraphrasing), “All I know is that when we have people saying that they’re going to kill us because we’re Americans or because we’re Christians, we need to get them before they get us. We need to take them out before they can take us out.”
One couple brought up the point that not all Muslims are terrorists, and that many simply wish to live a peaceful life. The response of “P” was this: “I know, but we don’t really have a way of knowing who is a terrorist and who is not. Their religion is not peaceful, and if you read their holy book you’ll know what they’re told to do to Christians like us.”
At some point I jumped in and emphasized that Muslims are no more and no less lost and in need of salvation through Jesus than are Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and anyone else who is outside of Christ. I added that if some Muslims have declared themselves to be our enemies, then we have the clear words of Jesus as for how we are to relate to them: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven’” (Matthew 5:43-45).
Another man, “S,” spoke up and said that Muslims have declared themselves to be enemies to Israel, and that we need to take out Israel’s enemies before they can take her out, because that’s what the Bible tells us to do. Exasperated at this point, I turned to “S” and said, “No, it doesn’t! Please tell us right now where the Bible says any such thing.” Instead of acknowledging my question, though, he told me that the Muslims in Malaysia were trying to kill my brother at that very time. Well, “S” had things quite a bit mixed up. “First,” I clarified, “none of my brothers have ever been to Malaysia. Second, I’m Adam, and I did live in Malaysia for nearly six years, but I’ve been back in the US for the last three years. Third, as far as I know, no one ever tried to kill me while I lived there. Fourth, even if they had, it only serves to illustrate that they need Jesus.”
As the discussion continued on with no one recanting their views, I finally decided to bring up something I had been holding in for some time. I related an encounter that I had with a church staff member about five years ago. At the time the pastor and an associate pastor were up in arms with a gas station owner across the street who was violating an obscure Ohio law about not selling alcohol within 500 feet of a church. This man was denounced from the pulpit numerous times, with remarks even made that “as a Muslim he ought to know better than to sell alcohol.” One day that summer (this was during a month-long visit I had made to Ohio from Malaysia) I was at the church on a weekday and one of the staff members brought up this situation in a conversation with me. She was quite belligerent about this man and his “awful misdeeds,” saying he needed to be brought down in court, taught a lesson he would never forget, uprooted from the neighborhood, etc. After listening in disbelief for a little while, I calmly asked this staff person if anyone from the church had taken the time to walk across the street, build a relationship with this man, and share the love of Jesus with him. “But he… but he…” was the only response I got, so I asked the question again, only to get nowhere. Quite clearly, there was something much deeper with some of the leaders at this church than the simple fact that alcohol was being sold by this man. The more I listened, it had everything to do with him being a Muslim.
Much of the church in America has become so infatuated with political involvement that we’ve taken on a lot of the stances, fears, sentiments, and viewpoints of those who have only the things of this world to live for. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than when it comes to Muslims who live in this nation. We often regard them with fear or keep them an arms-length away (in reality, much further away than that). We would like to see them leave this country so that we can preserve our precious “way of life,” but we fail to see that God has brought them here so that they might have a much greater chance of hearing the saving message of the gospel than they would if they were back in their native lands. May God forgive us for squandering such an open door!
Thank God, though, for the good works that are being done by believers regarding the Muslims whom God has placed around us. I know of some great ministries right here in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul), where we have some 100,000 Somalian refugees, to identify just one cluster of Muslims. Likewise, I’m encouraged by what I see in this brief video recently featured on NBC Nightly News:
Please take just over two minutes to watch the video in the link above. I know that some may recoil because Muslim prayers are being conducted in a church building, but the Church is not about buildings anyway. Those who follow Christ are the temple of the Lord, according to the New Testament. I hope that more efforts like this, and even those which may perhaps be more clearly gospel-centered than this one, will spring up around this country, replacing the all-too-common fear and bigotry that has become such a plague among us. May the Lord be honored by many Muslims, and non-Muslims as well, coming to know Him in ever-increasing numbers, all for His glory.
Adam Maarschalk currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From 2001-2007 he lived in Malaysia, where he taught English, learned the Malay language, helped facilitate village homestays for foreigners, and experienced some incredible hospitality. He enjoys writing, and is keenly interested in eschatology and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially where it is impacted by what is known as Christian Zionism.