Recently a flight from Philadelphia to Syracuse was delayed two hours, stalled on the runway, because one passenger became concerned when she perceived a man of Middle Eastern descent scribbling what appeared to be Arabic on a piece of paper. Was he an Islamic terrorist? Was he scrawling out his intentions to hijack the flight and create mayhem?
It turns out the man was an Italian economics professor at University of Pennsylvania who was scribbling an algebraic equation. He wasn't a terrorist; he was a math nerd.
This story is more than a case of mistaken identity. It illustrates something about the "fear of Islam" that grips many in our society. While Islamophobia obviously has something to do with Islam--or, at least, certain kinds of Islam--it is the fear factor that often develops a life of its own. In other words, Islamophobia often has less to do with Islam and more to do with fear.
This reality is prevalent among Christians, despite what the faith teaches. In the New Testament, Jesus continually exhorts his followers, "fear not." It is his most repeated exhortation and thus reveals something fundamental about the Christian faith. Unfortunately, when it comes to current concerns about Islam, many Christians are doing exactly what Jesus warns against: They are giving into fear which produces the fruit of anxiety, judgment, anger, hatred, self-protecting isolation and/or militant aggression. When this happens, we betray ourselves, fail our Muslim neighbors, and botch our Christian witness.
Such fear was on display after last year's Paris attacks, in a sermon by the evangelical pastor, Robert Jeffress. At one point, Jeffress claimed that Muslims follow a warrior prophet who killed his enemies and called his followers to do the same, while Christians follow a loving savior who called his followers to love their enemies. While his characterization of Islam is deeply problematic, what is more relevant here is what he says a few minutes later when he vigorously wags his finger in the air and declares, "it is time to start bombing the 'you know what' out of ISIS. That is a Biblical response!" How did Jeffress get from point A (love enemies) to point B (bomb enemies)? He did so through exegetical gymnastics that short-circuit Christian love and grant impunity to the U.S. government to do, in his words, "whatever is necessary" to destroy radical Islam. (Interestingly, his language closely parallels Malcolm X's infamous call to oppose racial injustice "by any means necessary").
But the heart of Jeffress' comments surfaces when he declares, "If we do not confront and defeat the evil of radical Islam, [it] is going to confront and defeat us!" In that statement, the true colors of the pastor's anger are revealed and any trace of righteous anger for victims and injustices gives way to fearful anger ready to fight for self-preservation. To many, that is a "natural" response to threat. But is it Christian? Remarkably, while the pastor's earlier statements about Jesus' love and peace received nonchalant responses from his Sunday morning crowd, this stomping call to militant action evoked a standing ovation.
There is much that needs to be said, but I will limit myself to three brief reflections.
First, whatever a Christian response to Islamophobia should be, if it is not drenched in radical love, then it is not Christian. Only theological contortionists can align fearful, self-preserving violence--whether by individuals or governments--with the teaching and call of the "crucified one." Even when defiant action against injustice is required, such action can only be considered Christian when love for enemies--whether real or perceived--transcends base desires for self-protection and preservation.
Secondly, Christian responses to Islamophobia must be hopeful. At its core, the Christian faith is a conviction that God has acted definitively in the person of Jesus Christ to overcome the powers of darkness that suck life and instill fear. This is announced as "good news" to the world and invites people to respond with trusting hope. Given the extravagance of this claim, critics might reasonably accuse Christianity of being naïve. What is not reasonable, however, is to declare belief in Jesus and then respond in fear. If, as Christians claim, evil, sin, and death are on their last legs and God promises a peaceful and redeemed future, then we are freed to love, serve, and forgive, despite rejections and sufferings. We are freed to be strong in grace, defiant in love, courageous against injustice, all because we have nothing to fear. As a contemporary urban prophet has declared in a different context, "if God got us, then we gon' be alright."
Finally, Christian responses to Islamophobia ultimately have little to do with the "nature" of Islam. Much of our current discourse is obsessed with trying to pin down this nature. Is Islam inherently peaceful or violent? Is Islam compatible with modern liberal values? Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? I am interested in those questions and participate in the discussions. However, for those seeking a Christian response to Islamophobia, those questions are largely irrelevant since Christians, by definition, take their cues only from Jesus.
I think Christians and Muslims share remarkable opportunities and resources for mutual respect, peaceful collaboration, civil debate, and genuine friendship. In the end, however, whether I am right or wrong, whether Islam is violent or peaceful, liberal or medieval, terrorizing or misunderstood, or whether Muslims are seen as neighbors or enemies, the Christian response remains the same:
Faith, not fear. Hope, not despair. Love, always.