Tag Archives: Islam

Who and what count as Christian?

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It seems appropriate to ask this on Christmas. But the timing is not coincidental or sentimental; the question has been forced into the public arena by Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins’s personal decision to wear a hijab in “human solidarity” with vulnerable Muslims in America as part of her observation of Advent, and by the college’s hamhanded and tone-deaf meanness in fanning the flames of the ensuing controversy.

Technically, apparently, the “Christian” (note my pointed scare quotes) college near Chicago suspended the tenured political science professor not for wearing the hijab, but for asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, which led to a widespread “Christian” hue and cry about something to do with how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Whatever. If I sound dismissive, that’s because I am. In a pompous statement issued on December 11, Wheaton College asserted its “distinctively evangelical Christian identity” and condescendingly referred to “complex theological matters” that can be properly understood only by credentialed expert theologians. Beware anyone, from any faction, who insists that you trust the experts.

Why should the rest of us care, if we don’t work at or attend Wheaton College, or even attend church? Because, over most of my lifetime, we’ve all had to watch and suffer while political Christianity has done to America what political Islam has done to many other countries: aggressively claim rhetorical dominance and the moral high ground in public life in the name of its version of religion. It’s long past time that the rest of us pushed back just as aggressively.

Part of that pushback needs to be in the form of self-identified Christians themselves reclaiming from the “Christian” bullies the right to define what it means to be Christian. This is what Larycia Hawkins and some courageous Wheaton College students have done. It’s necessary to emphasize that I’m not – and we shouldn’t be – against Christians or Christianity per se. Some of my best friends are Christians. And it’s just as unfair to blame all Christians for the bigotry and violence of the worst among them as it is to stigmatize all Muslims. But, by the same token, if Muslims are to be required to repudiate their own extremists, so should Christians be. We should all be against bullies, and much of the battle needs to be fought precisely on the terrain of what is meant by the phrase “Christianity per se.”

I don’t claim to be a Christian – and much of the reason for that is that I was pushed away from the religion by the American bullies who claim its mantle. But I’m as conversant in what counts as Christian as the next lapsed churchgoer. Perhaps moreso, since my father is not only not lapsed but a long-serving (and long-suffering, now retired) Episcopal parish priest. But he’s probably not Christian enough for the people at Wheaton College either. One thing I do claim to know, because I learned it from him, is that Jesus was not a bully.

When I discussed the Larycia Hawkins incident with my father, he raised a powerful rhetorical question: “If Jesus were alive today, would he be a Christian?” The answer lies somewhere along the frontier between the arrogated prerogatives of institutions (whether the papacy or Wheaton College, it matters not) and the freedom of the individual conscience. And no less a Christian than Dostoevsky addressed it with brutal honesty in his great thought experiment “The Grand Inquisitor.”

Wheaton College’s claim to a “distinctively evangelical Christian identity” seems to be connected to those “complex theological matters” to which it knowingly alludes in its statement. What needs to be challenged is not the credentials of Wheaton’s theologians, but the underlying presumption that understanding what it means to be Christian requires a credentialed theologian. Larycia Hawkins gets that. “I want the focus to be taken away from Wheaton not doing right by me,” she told The Guardian in a remarkable interview just before going home to Oklahoma for Christmas.

That’s bad – but what’s even worse is the kind of tolerance toward the bigotry, for the hatred, for Islamophobia, for the political rhetoric – and [how] we don’t check politicians. Because we’re too lazy, too intellectually lazy to … say that’s against American values. It’s against Christian values. It’s not what the Bible teaches me to do. As a little girl, I’ve known to love thy neighbor. That’s the message.

See – you don’t have to be a theologian to understand what it means to be Christian; you just have to be a little girl being raised by nice people in Oklahoma. Merry Christmas.

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I know what Muslims are like

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I haven’t written many articles or newsletters this year. Part of the reason is that I’ve been busy on other fronts, in my personal life as well as working on a couple of new book projects, plus launching a modest book-publishing venture (the website is still a work in progress). But I also don’t think the world needs a steady stream of op-eds and tweets, opinions and “quick takes,” from me, any more than it needs them from anybody else. Part of our problem these days is that we all have all too much to say.

So I’m writing now to say something I consider important: that the Muslims I know are not like the ones you see on TV. Anyone who knows me either personally or through my writing knows that I’ve said that many times before, in different forms and venues. I really don’t know how to say it differently or better, or to write other than out of my own experience. My personal exposure to Muslim people began in Kashmir in 1994 and continued in Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Thailand and especially Pakistan, where my extensive travel culminated in a stint living and teaching in Lahore in 2003-04 and the publication of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan. Since then I’ve returned to Pakistan twice, in 2009 and 2011.

And since returning to live in the United States in 2006 I’ve put in a lot of time and air miles getting to know Pakistani-American communities from coast to coast. I can say that I haven’t agreed with or even personally liked every Muslim I’ve ever met, but then again I haven’t agreed with or liked every Christian or Jew I’ve met, either. Human nature is what it is.

So we have to deal with each other, and with ourselves. It should go without saying – but I’d better say it anyway – that the carnage perpetrated in Paris by Islamist radicals is appalling and utterly without justification. But I don’t want to live in an America ruled by fear and loathing, bullied by those among us who lack the self-control or self-respect to resist yielding to their lowest animal impulses. At the moment, I’m speaking in particular of the cretins who have been terrorizing an Islamic center in Irving, Texas by showing up there armed with automatic rifles, which unfortunately happens to be legal in Texas. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean they’re not cretins and bullies.

And I take this personally because the same outfit, led by a coward named David Wright, has also published on Facebook the home addresses of Muslims and so-called “Muslim sympathizers” who spoke out at a recent Irving city council meeting against an unnecessary and incendiary “anti-shariah” Texas state law. Shame on me for the following, but I was especially brought up short by the fact that one of the addresses published was that of an activist named Anthony Bond, i.e. apparently a non-Muslim American just like me. That World War II-era poem about how first they came for the Socialists, then they came for the Jews, etc.  comes to mind.

You could object that bullies like David Wright don’t represent or lead mainstream America. But if they don’t, who does? And who among us will stand up against large, aggressive men armed with automatic rifles, for the principle that might does not make right? Well, Anthony Bond will, for one. “We have a right to disagree, but we do not have the right to target and cause … harm just because we differ in our beliefs,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “That is the goal of this post: to put a bulls-eye on the back of all the people that stood up against the so-called anti-Shariah law bill.”

The other crucial principle to stand up for in today’s America is that it’s not all right to judge or punish or intimidate people solely or preemptively on the basis of the religion they were born into. Perhaps I have an advantage in this, since I know many Muslims personally. And I know what they’re like: for better or worse, they’re just like you and me.

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