If I had to put it bluntly, I’d say many American Christians don’t have a clue about how to do ministry in Muslim-based cultures. Nor, frankly, do most of us know, really, what a Muslim is, what he or she believes, or how we can or should befriend much less talk about Jesus with a Muslim neighbor or co-worker. Until a few months ago, I’d have to put myself in the same category.
And we’re not down to bedrock. The problem goes deeper. Truth be told, some American Christians don’t particularly want to know much about Muslims—expect maybe how to make a them go away.
A Moment in Time
Roots and reasons for these views aren’t difficult to identify. Among them:
- 9/11 and the understandable fear, anxiety, and anger that stems from this horrific day
- Periodic acts of terrorism since that day, including Fort Hood and the Christmas day airline scare
- Not one but two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
- Cultural, racial, and ethnic differences
- Rapid growth of Muslim populations worldwide, including significant increases in the United States
- Theological disagreement with the tenets of Islam
There’s another possible reason I hesitate to list for fear of being misunderstood, but it’s reality within the broader Christian community. We’ve rightly been taught from early in our Christian experience that Jews are “God’s chosen people” and that God sent the Savior into the world through them. This is biblical, and it is true. But some of us amp the current, creating an emotional bond with not simply Jews but with the Nation of Israel and even the Israeli government, then in turn hold Palestinians at arm’s length.
Short version: Israelis good; Palestinians, or Arabs in general, bad. Those who hold this position don’t appreciate those who express other viewpoints. Ask former President Jimmy Carter.
Real Feelings, Real Threat
So politically, socially, maybe practically we understand why some American Christians might develop profoundly negative feelings toward Muslims. The terrorists we’ve so far seen are or were Muslims. They’re radicals or extremists, but they’re still Muslims. That’s not profiling; it’s a fact. Radical Muslims give the rest of Muslims a bad name because radicals do hate, they do consider America the “Great Satan,” and they are a real threat to American lives and a Western way of life.
We must also acknowledge the pain of personal experience. If you lost a relative in the Twin Towers or your family’s loved one was injured or killed in a combat zone in the Middle East, it’s not surprising your feelings toward Muslims may lean toward vengeance.
So, yes, there are many reasons why some American Christians have adopted “anti” feelings toward Muslims. We get that. But we also know that not all followers of Islam are violent fanatical fundamentalists any more than all Christians are gay-bashers, anti-Semitists, racists, or militant fundamentalists. It grieves us to know that these kinds of attitudes have characterized some who named the name of Christ but, thankfully, these things are not characteristic of all Christians or of truly biblical Christianity. The same is especially true for American Muslims, most of whom are as appalled, grieved, and angry about terrorism as any other American.
I don’t want to overstate the “anti” issue. In my work with SAT-7, a Christian satellite television ministry reaching 22 countries across seven time zones in the Middle East and North Africa, I travel frequently and meet a lot of good Christian people. They are spiritually committed, generous supporters of missions, including efforts to share Christ with Muslims. Some of them are studying the history of the Middle East, researching Islam, and making friends as they can with Muslims in their communities. There are also a number of American-based Christian ministries at work both domestically and internationally whose purpose is to love Muslims and present the positive claims of Jesus the Messiah. They’re doing this because they want to model Jesus’ love.
But still, it’s not exaggeration to say that some American Christians struggle with a smoldering resentment toward Muslims. I’ve had long conversations with Christians who express such feelings. Yet what I find interesting, even encouraging, is that they generally recognize there’s something amiss and want to change it.
A Spiritual Tension
I call it a spiritual tension, an uneasy conscience wherein we wrestle internally with our inclinations versus what the Holy Spirit is telling us. Christians who truly want to be like Jesus, who ask WWJD, who understand “Love your neighbor as yourself,” sooner or later recognize that feelings rooted in bias, anger, prejudice, certainly hatred, anything short of “the greatest of these is love,” are not defensible—or healthy. Something’s not right and they know it. The challenge is to submit these feelings to the Lord.
We’ve been here before. I have a friend who is a spiritually mature believer, one who has lived his life in a God-honoring way. A few years ago he revealed how the Lord changed his attitudes toward Japanese people. He admitted he’d held some pretty strong feelings. This is not so strange when you learn he’d served as a Marine in the Pacific theater in World War II. He experienced things that marked his life. We benefit today because he and others of the Greatest Generation gave the ultimate full measure.
God in his grace brought my friend home. The War ended, life moved on, new generations were born, and relationships with the Japanese people changed markedly for the better. In time the Spirit brought a new understanding to my friend’s heart. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t a betrayal of his comrades in arms. It was, rather, a work of the Spirit of the God of peace.
Speaking the Truth in Love
There are about 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, a little more than 20% of the world’s population. An accurate count for the number of Muslims living in the United States doesn’t exist, in part because the U. S. Census Bureau doesn’t collect information on religious affiliation. Estimates range from 1.5 to 6 million. Whatever the number, Islam is growing worldwide and followers hold remarkably similar views on the basic tenets of their faith even while differing ethnically, nationally, culturally, and in attitudes toward the West.
Bible-believing Christians do not agree theologically with Islam, which among other differences considers Jesus simply a great prophet but not the Savior. In profound contrast, we believe Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and only through Him may one experience forgiveness and salvation. It is therefore not only O.K. but essential for us to identify and share our differences with Islam. We must witness to the truth. To do anything less is to deny our own faith. The challenge comes in how we do this.
According to Scripture, we must speak the truth in love. Rejecting Islam as a belief system does not demand we despise Muslims. In fact the only way to win a Muslim to Christ is generally through a long trust-building process of expressing genuine love and mutual respect. Speak the truth, but speak it in love. They must first learn that we care before they care what we say.
Here are a few suggestions on learning to love Muslims that have been helpful to me and others:
1) Learn more about biblical Christianity and why you
believe what you believe
2) Learn more about Islam. Examine the Quran; read about Muslim
3) Pray for Muslim neighbors, co-workers, and friends
4) Don’t be argumentative, unloving, self-righteous, or nasty in your
interactions with Muslims—or anyone else for that matter
5) Don’t think of Muslims as “the enemy.” They are not our enemy.
Satan and sin are our enemies. Muslims are human beings made in
the image of God who God loves and for whom Christ died
6) Don’t push your faith on Muslims. Get to know them and their
needs and priorities.
Someone once said the way to a Middle Easterner’s heart is a thousand cups of tea. Even more with Muslims. It’s about relationship. They need to see a living hope in us. It’s about Jesus.
Dr. Rex M. Rogers serves as President of SAT-7 USA, the American arm of a Christian television service (www.sat7usa.org) for the people of the Middle East and North Africa. He was President of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids from 1991-2008 and is the author of several books. For sixteen years, Dr. Rogers was the author and voice of the radio program and newspaper column Making a Difference. He speaks regularly in churches, schools, commencements and other special events, business environments, and conferences. You can tweet him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers and find mission information there