On Tuesday night, I was asked to participate in an Interfaith Panel Discussion with other religious leaders of various faiths and religious backgrounds. This event was sponsored by our local newspaper. I had the privilege of being in discussion with a Lutheran youth pastor, a Muslim leader, a conservative evangelical pastor, an Episcopal priest and a priest from a Coptic church. This is how the paper communicated the purpose of the evening:
The Interfaith Community Panel is comprised of several religious leaders from throughout our community representing different faiths. The Interfaith CommunityPanel will gather regularly to share views and engage the community in a healthy and open discussion of topics of interest and of issues affecting the community. On October 16 the topic of discussion will be “Religion vs Free Speech: Blasphemy in the Public Square.
You can read the brief article written about the event here.
The discussion centered around the recent controversy – and violent protests – in response to the movie made about the prophet Mohammed. I learned a great deal from the other panelists and I am very thankful for the varying perspectives brought to the discussion. I had a chance to share (albeit, very briefly) on the topic of the evening. I had additional thoughts I had hoped to share, but time did not allow. I’ve thought about this particular topic quite a bit over the past couple of weeks and I thought I’d share these ruminations here, though they might not be expressed in a clear, orderly manner.
For those who don’t know or haven’t heard, in July 2012 a low-budget, low-quality film called The Innocence of Muslims was released in a Hollywood Theater to about a dozen people. A 13 minute YouTube clip was posted shortly thereafter – one version dubbed in Arabic, which incited violence in Egypt and Libya and other Middle East countries. In reaction to what Muslims consider blasphemy of the Prophet Mohammed, the U.S. Embassy in Libya was stormed and U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed, along with three other Americans, in Benghazi. Dozens more were injured.
The film itself portrays Mohammed as a womanizer, pedophile and homosexual; it mocks torture, encourages brutality, adultery and sexual immorality infuriated the Muslim world. To make the story even more strange, the actors in the film later released a statement saying they were deceived, as dialog was changed after acting was completed, words edited out and then dubbed over after the fact with anti-Muslim sentiments later – without the knowledge of the actors themselves.
In my personal opinion, the acting in the film is, to put it bluntly, absolutely abysmal with the lead actor looking more like Ashton Kutcher than anything that might remotely resemble Mohammed. I’m bothered and disturbed, as many of the elements in the film are offensive to Christians, Jews and Muslims – and all human beings. The tone of the film was defiant and laced with blatant mockery. Truthfully, if Jesus were mocked in this manner, I would find offense.
What, then, is the religious community’s response to such inflammatory material? What is one to do with blasphemy? This was the nature of the discussion for the panelists.
This, no doubt, is a significant topic for sure. Faith matters profoundly to literally billions of people around the globe. Worldwide, Muslims and Christians together make up over half of humanity. (20% of the world’s population are Muslim, 33% Christian – according to the Association of Religion Data Archives). Thus, it is fair to assume if Muslims and Christians cannot work toward peace, the world will have great difficulty working toward peace.
We live in an age where interconnectedness is growing at an ever-increasing pace. Michael Koplow’s memorable line is fitting: “The world has become one big crowded theater, and anyone with a laptop can now yell ‘fire’ and set off a stampede.” It reminds me of something a Muslim Bedouin told me when I lived for a semester in the Middle East in college: “When the middle east sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.”
It also reminds of the New Testaments words found in James chapter 3:
“Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body…with the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.”
This situation reminds many of the publication of the satirical cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in Denmark 2006 which sparked violent riots and protests around the world. I have read the Q’uran – but it has been quite some time now so I could be wrong, but the Q’uran prohibits making any drawings of Mohammed; so what happened in Denmark in 2006 – and the past several weeks in the Middle East – certainly sparked outrage in the Middle East and elsewhere.
As we discussed the differences of Muslims and Christians I was struck at just how grateful I was – and am – for opportunity to talk in respectful discussion about significant issues – something not all countries are able to engage in without bloodshed. I was grateful for the precious opportunity and right for free expression, despite apparent differences.
During the panel discussion I couldn’t help but think that this is what the apostle Paul did this in Acts 17 at Mars Hill in the Agora, discussing the latest significant ideas and thoughts of the day with people of different beliefs and convictions. I love being a part of discussions like this.
Looking back on the evening, I hope my responses – along with everyone else’s – were both truthful and charitable at the same time. I hope I was loving my neighbor well on Tuesday night. According to the hadith, the Prophet Mohammed said, ‘None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.” Jesus, of course, said similarly, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In Islam and in Christianity, love of God and love of neighbor are central. No doubt, these two religions have significant differences – but the two greatest commandments are of significant common ground between not just the Q’uran and the Christian Scriptures – but also in the Jewish Torah.
This topic certainly is like serving what Miroslav Volf calls “a hot and spicy dish” – a hot topic with spicy discussion – and hopefully that dish was served with respect and compassion by the wait staff. The Puritans had a saying I like to quote often: God loveth adverbs. How we do things matters to God (1 Peter 3:14-15). The posture in these sorts of discussions must include confidence in the truth, and yet humility – which includes listening and respect (though that does not always mean complete agreement). Our culture often speaks of tolerance – but that is not the way of Jesus. Jesus never tolerated people; instead he loved them.
We talked about blasphemy – what is it, how do we define it and where does it exist today. We also talked much about freedom of speech and its role in society. As I reflect, I remember that Jesus was accused of blasphemy by religious leaders of his own context; that was the charge, in fact, leveled against him to justify his death. Jesus’ birth happened under a tyrant named Herod. Jesus himself knew the true nature of blasphemy, tyranny and a culture of violence and oppression where there was no freedom of speech as we know it today.
When we talk about free speech, it is important not to confuse kingdom values with empire values. Jesus said, ‘my kingdom is not of this world.’ We must not confuse kingdom values (the rule and the reign of God) with empire values (what we would in this context, called American values). Jesus talked directly about responding to persecution this way: if someone strikes you on the cheek, you offer the other. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who persecute you. That is radical (and, in many senses, very un-American) in approach.
Specifically addressing American rights, does – and should – the 1st amendment protect freedom of speech? Absolutely. But does that mean we should do and say whatever we desire? Absolutely not. Just because we can, does not mean we should. The truth is you can say what you want, but there will be consequences.
I talked with my grandfather on the phone last week about this idea of free speech in America. He said, “You can wave a red flag in front of an angry bull, but you cannot be shocked if it starts to charge your direction.” Wise words.
Each panelist was asked to share their personal thoughts regarding the movie itself for a few moments – and I shared the thoughts I shared above. With the brief time given to me, I used the opportunity to apologize publicly to my Muslim friends who were in attendance for the hurt that was caused by a Coptic Christian (who claims to espouse values that are consistent with Jesus) who produced this film. Sophomoric actions like this are confusing and hurtful to the Muslim world (and others) – and as someone who is in leadership of a local congregation that seeks to live in and embrace the ways of Jesus, I asked for their forgiveness.
But I am called to repudiate the distortions of my own faith – to say, “these people do not represent me as I attempt to live out and embody the way of Jesus.” I will condemn all forms of violence that go against the teachings of Jesus. Jesus clearly said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ – not the peace keepers. I cannot endorse any violence, whether on YouTube, at embassies in the Middle East – or in any other form or expression.
Had I been given more time to respond, I would have desired to share three additional thoughts:
(1) The importance of avoiding caricatures of The Other. I have two friends from college who work as U.S. diplomats in parts of the Middle East. I reached out to them in the past week to ask for their opinion and perspective as an American living in the Middle East – and as a Christian. One friend told me it is important to remember not every Arab is a Muslim and not every Arab is a raving mad flag-burner - just as every Christian of the world would not threaten Muslims or create mocking YouTube videos about Mohammed either. There are good and decent people in every country, and they are just as repulsed and threatened by extremists as we are. To create caricatures and broad stereotypes of people is incredibly immature, significantly dangerous and incongruent with the life and teachings of Jesus.
(2) The existence of persecution around the world. There have been more Christians killed in the past 100 years for their faith than in the previous 1900 years – combined. We have the right to free speech in America, but there are significant pockets of the world where owning a Bible, claiming to be a Christian or holding a church service will get you fined, punished, imprisoned and/or killed. Indeed, today an estimated 200 million Christian believers face harassment, government oppression and persecution, particularly in the Muslim world (Indonesia, Iran, Libya, etc), in communist North Korea, and at the hands of Hindu extremists in India. Another 350 million people live under constant oppression and discrimination. We must remember other Christians who are being persecuted – this very day – and pray for them regularly.
(3) Our differences lie in one question: Not “what do we make of Allah/God?” Instead, it lies in ‘”what are we to make of Isa/Jesus?” Whether we like it or not, Jesus makes some radically exclusive claims (John 14:5-12). Jesus is our litmus test regarding our understanding of God (Jn 14:6; Col 1:15-20). John’s gospel is the affirmation that Jesus is the self-revelation of God himself. Here’s the hope-filled news: Isa/Jesus may be divisive, but he offers a life to any who desire it.
Certainly, the conversation between Muslims and Christians – and all people we consider The Other – must involve humility, patience, charity, compassion, clarity and a desire to know the truth. The posture needed is prayerful discernment.
After the panel discussion ended, a Muslim man who appeared to be in his fifties approached me, shook my hand – and then hugged me. He pulled back, looked at me, smiled and said, “I appreciated your words tonight, but I appreciated your temperment more.” For that, I was – and am – incredibly encouraged and grateful by such words.
There is something incredibly beautiful and redemptive that comes in the midst of Christian pastor and a Muslim man hugging. As we hugged I could only think of one thing: love your Muslim as yourself…