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Thinking Out Loud

Call it What You Want, but Don't Call it Christian

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 29, 2016

Our Neighborhood of Many FaithsI watched a fascinating interview on television recently. Fascinating and disturbing.

The interview was on the evening news. It was with three Muslim American citizens. Each of the three was proud to be an American.

The first man interviewed spoke eloquently of his love for the values that define America, values such as freedom, equality and justice. Another spoke insightfully of the fact that Muslims in America have become well integrated into American culture and have had a real stake in American society. This is a major reason, he said, that America has proven to be infertile ground for Jihadists' propaganda in contrast to some European countries. This man, a native-born American, also talked about his worries that some political rhetoric seems to be aimed at separating Muslim Americans from non-Muslim Americans, segregating them, treating them as perpetual suspects, keeping them under surveillance, and thus providing a real boost to the propaganda of those radicals who would divide Americans along lines of faith and ethnicity.

The interview that really disturbed me most, however, was with the third person, a woman. She was quiet, modest and soft-spoken. She seemed to carry a solemn grief. When she told her story, you saw the source of her sorrow. She had been attacked some months ago while eating dinner at an American chain restaurant. Another woman came up to her and hit her in the face with a beer bottle because she wore the headscarf representing her faith. The interview cut away to show still photographs of the restaurant where she was attacked and pictures of her face cut and bruised. This Muslim woman, also a native-born American citizen, was singled out for an act of hatred and violence because of her religious faith and because of her ethnicity. The loss she felt related directly to how much she loves this country and the values for which it stands.

One might call the attack on her un-American, and it was.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as some people may have forgotten, was insisted upon as a condition by some for the ratification of the Constitution. In particular, the First Amendment, guaranteeing religious freedom, was insisted upon by those who belonged to religious minorities, particularly the Baptists, who feared that the state might establish a state religion thus limiting the free exercise of their beliefs.* These representatives of minority religious faiths insisted that the United States should be a place where religious minorities can safely practice their faith. The Baptists were not the only religious minority at that time. There were also then in this country Quakers, Roman Catholics, Jews and others, including Muslims. Indeed, lest anyone think that the boundaries of "religious freedom" imagined by the founding fathers were limited to Christians and Jews, we would do well to consult the text that influenced the framers more than any other on this subject, not least because of its influence on Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia bill guaranteeing religious freedom. In 1689, John Locke published his "Letter Concerning Toleration", which specifically included Muslims as an example of religious faiths which should be tolerated. Locke's thought occupied a position of prominence in the minds of the founders of our republic second only to Thomas Paine. The Virginia statute guaranteeing religious freedom, a bill close to the heart of Thomas Jefferson, specifically guarantees religious freedom to Muslims. And, lest anyone think practitioners of Islam are late arrivals on these shores, George Washington worked with Muslims to insure they would not have their taxes used to support Christian worship and said that he would welcome Muslims to Mount Vernon.

Tolerance of faith is woven into the American republic from its founding. We might say that while it is the most American of values to guarantee people can live as they choose as long as they don't harm others, it is the most American of virtues to ensure that people can practice their faith unfettered by the beliefs of others.

Thomas Jefferson (a deist, devoted to the ideals of the Greek philosophy of Epicureanism) was as much an American as was John Adams (a devout Unitarian, though raised Congregationalist) and George Washington (who, while raised an Anglican, was also a deist). This country has provided a haven for people who practice a wide variety of faiths and for those who practice no faith at all. And this country has been stronger for it.**

But this is not my point today. Not really.

There are those who claim that their intolerance, their bigotry, their hatred, even their violence is somehow justified by their Christian faith. And I am here today to say one thing and to say it as clearly as I know how: You can call it many things when neighbor rises against neighbor in fear, hatred and violence, but you can't call it "Christian."

You can call it tribalism, nationalism, fascism, racism or just plain ignorance, but it isn't Christian. Those who follow Jesus are distinguished as saints for the crosses they bear, not the crosses they erect at the expense of others.

Hatred is not a Christian virtue, though tragically our creed has harbored some world-class haters in our history. But I find some comfort in the fact that for every advocate of some newfangled crusade of vengeance against others, there has been a Tolstoy, or a Bonhoeffer, or a Mother Teresa to remind us whom Christians are called to follow: Jesus of Nazareth. And this Jesus of Nazareth, himself, was not a Christian (a simple fact that I've seen folks turn somersaults trying to contradict). And Jesus of Nazareth, that wondrous and mystifying Palestinian Jew whom some of us believe was none other than the Christ of God, died a victim of political, religious and imperial violence.

I know a lot of folks are critiquing what some politicians are saying these days. They are concerned about the violent, divisive and hateful rhetoric among some political candidates. As bad as that may be, that's not what concerns me most.

Politicians will say what people want to hear. If nobody's buying their message, they stop peddling it. Sadly, however, there's a booming market for hatred and bigotry in our country.

The buyers as well as the peddlers in that market can wrap their hatred in a flag if they wish (though an American flag really doesn't fit their message), but they cannot hide behind the cross of Jesus.

Today, as I write these words, our Christian faith observes Easter Sunday. This is the day Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. This is the day we confess our trust in the God who has declared that death and sin will not have the last word over life and love. In the faith of the risen Christ, early followers of Jesus defied fear and violence, even death, certain that our lives, deaths and future rest in God's hands.

The fear that drives so much hatred and violence in our country is explicitly contradicted today by the Easter faith. God, the Bible tells us, chooses freedom over safety, creativity over selfishness, the risk of love over any security that violates humanity. So, when we Christians confess "Christ is risen!", we aren't affirming a dead dogma, but a living commitment to follow Jesus whatever the consequences may be, trusting God to raise us from whatever death may come.

In this Easter faith we welcome all persons of all faiths into a neighborhood of humanity that knows no bounds. If God is big enough to include us in this neighborhood, we can do no less.

*Probably the Baptist preacher John Leland, then of Virginia, exercised the single greatest influence in this matter during that period in which the new U.S. Constitution was being debated in Virginia. He played a key role in helping persuade James Madison of the political necessity to frame an amendment to the Constitution, which would guarantee that the state would neither establish a state religion (Leland and others were especially fearful that the Anglican Church would take that role) nor limit the free exercise of one's faith.
** Jefferson, a lifelong champion of religious liberty, made sure that copies of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was reprinted, translated into European languages, and distributed to diplomats even of despotic countries. As Dumas Malone noted in volume two of his classic six-volume biography of Jefferson: "He missed no good chance to point out that after so many years in which the human mind had been held in vassalage the standard of reason had been erected in the forests of Virginia." (pp. 103-104) While Jefferson "believed in one God, not no God, not twenty gods," writes Malone, "he thought it much better for the human spirit if a country had twenty sects rather than only one." (111) Dumas Malone, Jefferson and the Rights of Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951).

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