What I Learned About Peace From an Imam

by Ryan Gear

The recent photo of two­-year old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on the beach in Turkey shocked the world. Human beings with any sense of decency were cut to the heart at the loss of this little boy and the thousands of other children and adults he represents who ave been killed in recent Middle East conflict.

As European countries rightly welcome Muslim refugees from Syria, anti­-Muslim and anti-immigrant fervor is rearing it’s ugly head once again. A nationalist party in Britain released a fear­-mongering anti­-Muslim/anti­immigration video featuring wild math about birthrates and a ludicrous doomsday ending. Closer to home, we are witnessing a level of both anti-immigrant and anti-­Muslim nationalism in our current presidential campaign that has never been higher.

With irresponsible and even dangerous rhetoric increasing, we cannot afford to remain silent any longer. It is past time for all peace­-loving Christians to stand up and speak out loudly in favor of empathy and hospitality toward the immigrant and the Muslim. This is not simply a “liberal” cause. The need for Christians to speak out is based on this undeniable fact– the most vitriolic and xenophobic language in America is not coming from Muslims; it is coming from far right wing nationalists who claim to be Christians. The Muslims I know speak out for peace regularly but find it hard to gain media coverage.

This past May, I scheduled a series of sermons at One Church entitled Religions of the World. During that series, I invited a rabbi and an imam to speak on Judaism and Islam respectively. They both represented their faiths very well.

Prior to the series, I had been looking forward to having lunch with a local imam named Khalil. He speaks regularly at interfaith gatherings and flatly condemns all violence in the name of Islam. He is one of the moderate Muslims who is accused by right wing persons of not speaking out enough against terrorism. Like many American Muslim leaders, however, he speaks out against violence continually. It’s just that he has trouble getting his message into the news media.

I suspect that the cable news channels that complain that Muslim leaders do not speak out rarely invite Muslim leaders on air to speak out. After all, if you invite Muslim leaders on air to condemn violence, you can’t induce fear and rage in your viewers by claiming that Muslim leaders won’t speak out. Fear and rage drive up ratings, but what kind of ratings do calm, reasonable Muslim voices get you? Depending on the news outlet, inviting them to speak might drive away viewers.

Khalil and I had a very pleasant, thoroughly enjoyable conversation over a two­and-­a­-half hour lunch. We shared stories of how we entered the ministry and what our respective religion means to us. To him, Islam means peace. He beautifully articulated how Islam provides a holistic way of life, and I was struck by how similar it sounded to a Christian’s explanation of why she or he wants to follow Jesus. We joked about the common experiences that clergypersons have, regardless of their religion. As our server kept pouring fresh cups of coffee, we discovered that we have a great deal in common. I now consider Khalil a friend.

After our lunch, I drove home and saw the headlines that ISIS had burned Jordanian pilot Moaz al­Kasasbeh alive. ISIS commits revolting, brutal murders on video in order to recruit more terrorists and provoke endless conflict with the West. As you know, a war with the West is part of their fundamentalist, apocalyptic fantasy.

Curious to see all opinions, I typed foxnews.com into my browser and read an article titled “ISIS Burns Jordanian Pilot: Mr. Obama, when will you get angry about radical Islam?” In two sentences, the author called for vengeance and dehumanized the enemy. “America wants to know, when is President Obama going to get angry? When is he going to slam his fist on the desk, demand vengeance, put aside his incessant campaigning and call out the Islamic radicals of ISIS as the animals they are?”

I support thoughtful U.S. intervention on behalf of innocent people, but on a news outlet known for catering to conservative Christians, what does angry, dehumanizing vengeance have to do with the teaching of Jesus?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43­-45)

Just as famously, Paul (in Romans 12:19) referenced Deuteronomy 32:35: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” The King James translation is still the best remembered, saying, “’Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ saith the Lord.”

I believe in protecting the innocent from terrorists like ISIS, but this opinion piece and much of the news coverage of Muslims is an example of violent, vengeful, dehumanizing war rhetoric that is diametrically opposed to the teaching of Jesus.

And do we even need to remind everyone of the recent dehumanizing statements toward Latino immigrants by a presidential candidate?

Progressive Christians speak out regularly in defense of peace-­loving Muslims in our communities. Following the inflammatory anti­-Muslim protest in Phoenix this past spring, we saw how beautiful solidarity can be between Christians and Muslims.

Progressive Christians also speak against xenophobia and urge immigration reform that welcomes immigrants into the United States as though we were welcoming Jesus, Himself (Matthew 25:35).

This, however, can no longer be only a progressive Christian cause. Now, I think it’s time to ask a different question:

When are moderate Christians going to stand up and condemn this kind of un­Christian, vengeful rhetoric toward immigrants and Muslims?

Millions of Christians consume xenophobic and inflammatory “news” on a daily basis. When a prominent piece such as this one goes unchallenged by a large number of moderate Christians, I have to ask, where does their allegiance lie—with a cable news channel or with Jesus Christ?

The fact is, my lunch with an imam was far more peace­loving than the opinion piece I read afterward. Who has the inside track on making peace?

Ryan Gear is the founding pastor of One Church, a nondenominational progressive church in Chandler, Arizona. He is the founder of openmindedchurch.org, a growing national directory of churches willing to wrestle with questions and doubts. Ryan writes regularly for religion blogs such as OnFaith and Convergent Books and has been featured in Real Clear Religion. Ryan also serves as an initiator in Convergence U.S., a national movement bringing together forward-thinking Catholics, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants, along with ethnic and peace churches and other willing colleagues.

Follow Ryan on Twitter at twitter.com/ryangear77.