Thoughts on How We Talk About Religion, Specifically Christianity and Islam

I’ve been continuing to see stories about, and to have discussions about, President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.  It certainly hit a nerve with a lot of people.  I shared a few thoughts last week.  A good friend helped me see why more people were offended, something I missed before.  Plus, even as discussion on Obama’s remarks fades, ISIS continues to be in the news with their continual violence towards Christians, and others.

My friend argued that one reason many were so upset with Obama’s speech is that they felt it reflected a double standard in the media and public discourse.  When speaking of Islamic terror, we are always clear and quick to say these people are radicals and do not represent Islam.  Yet we make no such caveat when speaking of Christian evils, we simply say Christians committed evils.

I can see how some people do talk like this, though I am not in a place to say how most people talk in our culture.  Almost no matter what you think or feel, you can probably find confirmation of it somewhere in the cacaphony of voices out there.  In response to my friend, I think of Chris Rock’s tweet last week saying that we refer to ISIS as “radical Islam” but do not refer to the KKK as “radical Christians.”

Anyway, it has made me think – how do we determine when someone is representing the essence of their religion?  I hesitate to write on this because I cannot claim to know much about the essence of other religions.  I think Christians are too quick to read an isolated verse or two from the Quran and claim to get Islam.  We need to be careful about claiming to know the essence of Islam and which Muslims are truer to its teachings.  As outsiders, that can sound arrogant.  Would we want outsiders to the Christian faith to start telling us which Christians are actually following the Bible?

At the same time, we can look at history.  It is a historical fact that Jesus died on a cross and it is a historical fact that Muhammad led armies into battle.  Many Christians argue in light of Jesus’ example that we ought to be nonviolent, never using violence against others.  Christians who go to battle can claim King David or Abraham or other Bible figures as their example, but not Jesus.  Muslims at war can see themselves doing what Muhammad did.

Does this mean Islam is inherently violent?  I don’t think so.  Most Muslims see the work of groups like ISIS as outside mainstream Islam.  And again, I am hesitant to say anything about Islam is “inherent” since I am nowhere near an expert.

Really, my point is twofold:

1. Let’s try to be consistent in our language – If we are careful to say that terrorists do not represent true Islam then we ought to be as careful to say that medieval crusaders of American southern lynchers do not represent true Christianity.  Perhaps if Obama had been clearer here some of the backlash would have been lessened?  (I doubt it).

2. As Christians, let’s emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus – It is not a knock at Muslims or Muhammad to say that Jesus is totally different in his person and teachings.  Muhammad led armies into battle, eventually defeating his enemies who had driven him from Mecca.  Jesus taught love of enemies and turning the cheek to those who strike you, then he lived this out by dying on a cross.  He could have called down legions of armies to fight for him, but he chose to die.  This is one reason I am a Christian – Jesus is totally unique and incredibly compelling.

This is where some of those people who want to get rid of religion and just have Jesus are going.  Religion, whether Christianity or Islam, is not the answer.  Only Jesus is.  Of course, once communities of people form around Jesus you end up with a religion, it is unavoidable (apologies to those who seem to want to just have Jesus).  But if we focus more on Jesus and his teachings, seeking to shape ourselves to him, we’ll be on a better path.

Postscript: I wrote this post at the end of last week and since then more news of ISIS beheadings have come out.  It is truly horrible.  As we try to grasp what ISIS is and how they relate to Islam as a whole, this article is helpful.   I also came across this article which, I think, illustrates a truly Christian response to people of other religions in the face of a world that wants us to hate.

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