The war in Iraq brings to a new level the tensions between the Christian West and the Muslim Middle East. I use the term “Christian West” advisedly. I do not mean that most Westerners are Christians, but only that because the Christian worldview has had a dominant influence on Western culture, the world generally considers the United States to be a Christian nation. Ask most Arabs why America and its allies are intervening in Iraq, and they will tell you that the Christians are attacking the Muslims.
Tensions between America and Islam have been growing for decades. They first burst upon the scene in the late 1970’s, with the Iran hostage crisis. They reached a new level of seriousness during and after the first Gulf War. The 1990’s were a decade of increasing terrorism, especially in retrospect. Then came 9/11. Since al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center, things have been at or near a point of almost constant crisis. Whereas a previous generation was preoccupied with the Cold War between the Democratic West and the Communist East, the coming decades will be dominated by the conflict between the Christian West and the Muslim Middle-East.
One significant feature of this conflict has been the reticence of most Americans to say anything critical about Islam. American politicians, especially, are reluctant to suggest that Islam is anything but a moral, peace-loving, community-building faith.
This no doubt explains why Christian leaders who have violated the unspoken rule against criticizing Islam have been taken to task. Who has violated this rule, and what have they been saying? Well, Jerry Falwell said that Mohammed was “a terrorist.” Pat Robertson described Islam as “a monumental scam.” Similarly, Franklin Graham called it “a very evil and wicked religion” [The quotes all come from Newsweek, October 21, 2002, p. 40].
The response to these and other similar comments has been harsh. Not surprisingly, the television network Al-Jazeera has fanned the flames of controversy across the Arabic world. But even here in America, Falwell and the others have been accused of spreading hatred. “America’s Haters,” Newsweek called them. Christian leaders who criticize Islam are characterized as “extremists,” and often a direct comparison is drawn between them and Islamic fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden. The implicit and sometimes explicit message is that conservative Christianity is every bit as dangerous as militant Islam.
We must admit that some of the words Christian leaders have used to describe Islam have been poorly chosen. There are historical and theological reasons behind the charges that men like Pat Robertson have been making. But the result of their unnecessary and inflammatory language has been to discredit Christianity, both here in America and across the Middle East. This raises an important question for Christians who are trying to explain the gospel over against Islam: How should we relate to people of other faiths?
I have five suggestions, which are adapted from John Piper’s excellent column on this subject last October [See “Eight principles: How Christians should relate to those of other faiths,” World, October 12, 2002, p. 51]. First, we should present Christianity accurately, without trying to downplay aspects of our faith that may provoke disagreement or disapproval. This includes clarifying how Christianity differs from Islam. It is not hateful to point out what we believe to be untrue and unhelpful in other religions, provided that we are careful not to misrepresent their teachings. This only undermines our credibility. But it also undermines our credibility not to present Christianity as it actually is.
Second, we should not expect Christianity to be treated fairly, either by the Islamic world or by the secular media. It is of the very nature of Christianity that our faith in Christ will provoke hostility and even persecution. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt. 5:11 ESV). The more authentically and effectively we live for Christ, the more likely it is that people who do not know him as their Savior and Lord will attack what we are doing. This is normal. So if we get abused, or if our message gets distorted, we should not get angry. Instead, we should continue to witness to the truth with patience, humility, and practical deeds of love.
Third, we should explicitly renounce violence as a means of spreading our faith. This is especially important in a time of war. The Crusades are still alive in the Islamic memory. So when Christian leaders speak out against Islam, many people assume that this gives Christians license to kill. No doubt this partly explains why so many Muslims consider the current war in Iraq to be a religious attack on their faith, despite all of America’s protests to the contrary. But as Christians we believe that only a loving, witnessing, sacrificing church can effectively spread the gospel. As Piper puts it, “Christians spread biblical faith by suffering, not by causing suffering.” Of course, there is a legitimate place for sovereign nations to wage just wars. But this is not the role of the church, and it has nothing directly to do with advancing God’s kingdom.
Fourth, we should help people see the distinction between criticizing other beliefs and mistreating the people who hold them. Some people think that even to criticize Islam is to mistreat Muslims. We respectfully disagree. As Piper writes: “It is not a crime (hate crime or otherwise) to say publicly that someone’s belief is wrong and harmful, or to call someone’s behavior sinful and destructive. A necessary part of all debate concerning beliefs, behaviors, or proposals is the argument that some are wrong, ill-founded, and have deleterious effects.”
Finally, we should insist on our right as free citizens to defend our faith in the marketplace of ideas. Christians have always believed in religious liberty, not only for Christians, but for everyone. That is why, to this day, even Muslims are free to share their faith in the United States. All we ask is an opportunity to proclaim our faith clearly and openly. We believe that God will use our words to call his people to himself, including many people who right now are still Muslims.
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