On the day when bullets flew and bombs detonated in Paris, plunging the City of Light into darkness, I was visiting the most populous Muslim nation in the world. First in Indonesia, and then in Malaysia and Hong Kong while on a publisher-sponsored speaking tour, I heard breaking news in snatches only if the hotel carried CNN or BBC in English.
I felt oddly distant from the mood that must have descended like a shroud of fear over the U.S. and other Western countries. I flashed back to the somber days following September 11, 2001. I searched the Internet for the precise sites of the atrocities in Paris: on my travels to that splendid city, had I visited that restaurant, that stadium, that concert hall? I help support a missionary couple who have planted two churches, and reside as the only non-Muslims in an apartment building in a Parisian suburb—what must they be feeling at such a time?
Though I received email requests to write an immediate response to the events, while keeping a busy schedule in a foreign culture half a world away, I felt ill-equipped. Only later did I gain some perspective, in part by reflecting on a lecture I had heard from J. Dudley Woodberry, a specialist in Islam at Fuller Theological Seminary. Is the Muslim my enemy or my brother? Woodberry asked. His answer: both.
Islamic extremists in ISIS and Al Qaeda relish the label of enemy. After the recent attacks against Russia and France, and the execution of hostages from Norway and China, nations around the world face a universal threat. In a reprise of previous centuries when Muslims surrounded Europe, some extremists today plot a global conquest. They kill and maim civilians in London, Paris, and New York; torture and decapitate Christians in Libya and Iraq; burn churches in Egypt; persecute Jesus-followers in places like Iran, Pakistan, and the Philippines.
Yet, as Woodberry reminded his audience, Muslims are also our brothers. When I spoke at a church in Hong Kong, a Muslim imam attended, and each time he approached me afterwards with words of appreciation. Muslims share many values with Christians, such as a disciplined life and an emphasis on charity and care for the poor. They accept much of the Christian Bible as a sacred text—though they look to the Koran as a more complete, final revelation. Muslims use the Psalms as a prayer book. And the Koran includes ninety-three references to Jesus, presenting him as a prophet second only to Muhammad, a Messiah who will return someday to restore justice on earth.
I have met people in the restrictive Islamic societies of the Middle East who remain culturally Muslim yet follow Jesus. In those countries conversion from Islam is illegal, and brings swift retribution—banishment and possibly death—from the convert’s family. So the new Christian does not, for example, change his name from Muhammad to Peter, and he continues to pray five times a day and even attend mosque, where he privately worships Jesus the Messiah.
Almost all Muslims have the goal of winning the world for their faith, though only the more extreme groups, like ISIS, resort to violent means. (Let’s admit that Christians have a similar goal. We, too, represent a conversionist faith, and many ministries strive to “win the world for Christ.”) I must say, blowing up people and what they cherish is a most perverted form of evangelism, far more likely to turn people away from Islam. A decade ago the lower castes in India had considered converting en masse to Islam until the Taliban famously demolished the Afghan World Heritage Site statues of the Buddha, a revered figure to Indians.
At various times Christians also have used coercion. Charlemagne ordered a death penalty for Saxons who would not convert, and in 1492 Spain decreed that all Jews convert to Christianity or be expelled. Priests in the American West sometimes chained Native Americans to church pews to enforce church attendance. Over time, Christians learned that the faith grows best from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down. In the words of Miroslav Volf, “Imposition stands starkly at odds with the basic character of the Christian faith, which is at its heart about self-giving—God’s self-giving and human self-giving—and not about self-imposing.”
Tellingly, in his last miracle on earth Jesus healed the ear of an “enemy” whom his own disciple had wounded. Those who wish to remain faithful to Jesus must bear witness as he did, not by compelling assent but by presenting the gospel as a true answer to basic thirst.
A friend of mine who grew up in Palestine observes that those of us in the West will always view Muslims as the enemy unless they renounce violence and coercion. He wrote me, “Although the Qur’an calls Muslims descendants of Abraham, it rejects the dignity of Jews and Christians, calling them pigs (for Jews) and infidels (for Christians). They are to be forced to convert, otherwise subject to taxation, enslaved and/or destroyed. Unless these ominous sections are excised from the Muslim ‘sacred texts,’ there is no hope for reconciliation.”
Yet on my trip, I read daily editorials in Malaysian and Indonesian newspapers denouncing the Paris attacks and other acts of extremism. Islamic nations acknowledge the threat: after all, many more Muslims than non-Muslims have died at the hands of terrorists. These two Asian countries are charting a middle way, favoring their Muslim majorities while officially guaranteeing the rights of minorities from other faiths.
Officially, I say. Christians in Malaysia told me of evangelism techniques that, while nonviolent, are still coercive. Muslim men actively seek out Christian women to marry (they can have up to four wives), forcing them to convert and bear them Muslim children. Aggressive imams offer money to illiterate Christian villagers if they sign a document with an X; when they show up for church the next week, an officer informs them they have now registered as Muslims, a designation that cannot legally be changed. And Christians in Malaysia find it almost impossible to get permission to build a church, or even repair an aging building.
Indonesia has more freedom but also, in some regions, more direct persecution. As one Christian in Malaysia said, “We’re so blessed, because in Indonesia they’re burning churches and killing Christians, but here we just have to put up with discrimination and restrictions on our activities.” In Indonesia, where Christians are actually dying for their faith, another said, “We’re very blessed, because in Malaysia they can’t freely publish the gospel. Here, we still can.” Indeed, I spoke at a Christian book exhibition in Jakarta held in the atrium of a public mall.
I wrote in Vanishing Grace about an important insight I learned from a Muslim scholar who said to me, “I have read the entire Koran and can find in it no guidance on how Muslims should live as a minority in a society. I have read the entire New Testament and can find in it no guidance on how Christians should live as a majority.” He put his finger on a central difference between the two faiths. One, born at Pentecost, thrives cross-culturally and even counter-culturally, often coexisting with oppressive governments. The other, geographically anchored in Mecca, was founded simultaneously as a religion and a state.
As we talked, he pointed out that Islam seeks to unify religion and law, culture and politics. The courts enforce religious (Sharia) law, and in strict Muslim nations the mullahs, not the politicians, hold the real power. In contrast, the Muslim man reminded me, Christianity works best as a minority faith, a counter-culture. A recent book by Lee Beach, The Church in Exile, shows that throughout much of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament, God’s people operate as a minority within a surrounding culture that may well prove hostile. Beach calls for the church to establish “communities of engaged nonconformity” to show the world a better way to live—not by coercion, but by persuasion and example.
Historically, when Christians have reached a majority they too fall to the temptations of power in ways that are clearly anti-gospel. The blending of church and state may work for a time but it inevitably provokes a backlash, such as that seen in secular Europe today, where you find little nostalgia for Christendom.
Ajith Fernando, a writer and theologian from Sri Lanka, has this explanation for the recent turn toward violence: “Muslims believe their culture is superior because they think its features were dictated by God and reported verbatim in the Qur’an. So the Muslim extremists are humiliated over these defeats and some of them are responding by hitting out violently in anger. The Western leaders say they are fighting evil. The Muslim extremists feel that the West is evil and that they must protect righteousness by battling the West. So they hit targets that they associate with the West.”
Americans and Europeans understand the difference between a committed Christian who accepts Jesus as a model for living and a cultural Christian who happens to live in a nation with a Christian heritage, but not everyone elsewhere can make that distinction. Much of the world, in fact, draws conclusions about Christians by watching MTV, online pornography, and movies glorifying violence. To them, celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Charlie Sheen, and Kim Kardashian (or, more confusingly, her transgender step-father) personify “the Christian West” as much as Billy Graham and Pope Francis do.
It seems the entire world has now arrayed itself against ISIS, a relatively small group of zealots who welcome the opposition. Do they represent the death throes of a distorted theology or the beginning of yet another long-term ideological conflict? Post-Christian Europe can muster a police response but no real ideology to counter its attackers. As a German friend told me, “We are baffled by people willing to blow themselves up for a cause in which they believe. Most of us find it difficult to articulate what we are living for, much less what we might be willing to die for.”
Jesus came as God’s messenger of love, and chose to serve rather than to dominate, to die rather than to kill. Such a time as this calls for a vigorous faith from his followers, “communities of engaged nonconformity.”
Can we respect and dignify the majority of Muslims while simultaneously striving to root out the extremist minority? Can we resist the temptation toward vigilantism and prejudice against all Muslims? Can we not only accept them as neighbors but love them, as Jesus commanded? Can we live in a way that demonstrates to the Muslim world that “the Christian West” does not equal decadence, just as “the Muslim world” does not equal extremism? Can we maintain our cherished values of freedom and justice while under assault from forces that undermine them?
ISIS has proved how a dedicated minority of zealots can disrupt the world. What can Christians do to show the troubled world another, better way?