Jesus and Strangers: What the Bible Teaches About Christian-Muslim Relations

Hostility toward Muslims is so pronounced in this country that a headline on a recent cover of Time virtually screamed off the page, "Is America Islamophobic?" But if the 83 percent of the American people who claim to be Christian were to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, this headline, and the story it referenced, could never have been written.

Jesus never mentioned Muslims for one very good reason: he lived almost 600 years before the birth of Islam. But he had much to say about "strangers." Throughout the biblical text, the term "stranger" refers to people who stood outside the dominant social and religious norms: people who practiced other religions, who came from different nations, or who, because they were "different" in other ways, were often despised and rejected in the public square. By that criterion, Muslims are clearly among the "strangers" in America today, and the hostility directed toward Muslims in recent months has only accentuated that reality.

Jesus never suggested that his followers should fear "strangers," hate them, or reject them, even if those strangers practiced a different religion, and even if they were perceived as enemies. Instead, he pointedly told his followers to welcome them, love them, and care for them. Regarding enemies, real or perceived, Jesus plainly said, "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."

Regarding those who practiced other faiths, the gospel of John (4:7-30) tells about a Samaritan woman whom Jesus befriended. Samaritans in the ancient world practiced a religion that was related to Judaism but that the Samaritans claimed was superior to Judaism. In return, many Jews treated Samaritans with contempt. No wonder, then, that when Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water, the woman was shocked and put this question to him: "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" And his disciples were shocked that he would even talk with a woman -- any woman -- regardless of race or religion. But by promising the woman "living water," Jesus offered his disciples a lesson on how to treat "the stranger."

Again, in a world that routinely viewed the poor, the lame, and the blind as "the stranger," Jesus offered this counsel: "When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or our kinsmen or rich neighbors ... but when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, [and] the blind" (Luke 14:12-14). And in his most pointed teaching regarding "the stranger," Jesus received the righteous into eternal life because, as he put it, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." But to the others he said, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for ... I was a stranger and you did not welcome me."

In the past few weeks, stories that center on fear and even hatred of Muslims have dominated the American press. But there are other stories, far more important stories, that deserve to be published around the globe.

In Tennessee, for example, construction of the Memphis Islamic Center was not complete, so the Heartsong Church, an evangelical Christian community in Cordova, Tennessee, offered its sanctuary to members of the Islamic Center for their nightly Ramadan prayers. Steve Stone, pastor of that church, explained to a reporter from local television station WREG, "They're our neighbors across the street, and we follow Jesus, who teaches us to love our neighbors." Stone would have been equally correct had he told the reporter that "Jesus teaches us to love 'the strangers.'"

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Rt. Rev. Nathan D. Baxter, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, issued a pastoral letter to Muslims in that region on the very day that a pastor in Florida, Terry Jones, had threatened to burn copies of the Holy Quran. Regarding that burning, Baxter wrote, "Please know that we deplore such an act of disrespect. With many other area churches, the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania stands firmly in caring and support of you. ... We are all member communities in the family of God." As a black man, Bishop Baxter knows from experience what it means to be a "stranger," and so his words carry added weight.

The profoundly Christian words and actions of Pastor Stone and Bishop Baxter are regional steps, but important steps, toward resolving the tensions between Muslims and Christians in this country. The Christian community in the United States could make great strides toward healing relationships with their Muslim brothers and sisters if they would only practice on a broader scale what Jesus taught about how to treat "the strangers" in our midst.

Richard T. Hughes is Distinguished Professor of Religion at Messiah College and the author of Christian America and the Kingdom of God (Illinois 2009).