By James Sledge
I can’t imagine what it feels like to be Muslim in America today, to have people look at you with suspicion and hate, as though you were a threat. However, along with my Muslim friends, I do know what it feels like to have your faith misrepresented by those who claim to speak for it.
Much to my horror, Donald Trump regularly claims to be Presbyterian and then speaks and acts completely at odds with Jesus’ teachings. But at least Mr. Trump does not claim to be a Christian leader or to speak on behalf of the faith.
The same cannot be said for Jerry Falwell, Jr. In the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, Falwell called on Liberty University students to get concealed-carry permits so they could “end those Muslims before they walked in.” He even joked about “what I have in my back pocket right now…” chuckling as he asked, “Is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know.”
In one of the most strained biblical interpretations I’ve ever heard, Falwell claimed that Jesus’ words, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” somehow justify the use of deadly force. Falwell was talking about the same Jesus who stops his own followers from using swords (concealed weapon of choice in those days) to save his life, saying “For all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” This Jesus who demands that his followers love their enemies, yet Falwell imagines Jesus is fine with him armed and ready to kill.
Worse, Christians who listen to Falwell can say to themselves, “Jesus approves of my gun and my hatred/fear of Muslims.” And some Muslims surely think to themselves, “Jesus tells Christians to carry guns and hate me.”
That is a lie and a gross misrepresentation of Jesus and his teachings, yet a lie that far too many embrace. And those of us who try to follow Jesus are terribly negligent in allowing such lies to go unchallenged.
I regularly hear calls for moderate Muslims to do more to repudiate radical Islam. (No amount of repudiation satisfies such demands.) But American Christianity needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror. We have our own “radical clerics.” They are not as extreme as some who claim to be Muslim, but that seems more a matter of cultural, political, and economic context than theology.
A Muslim colleague of mine said this a few months ago while speaking to a Christian congregation. “If ISIS is Islam, then I am not a Muslim.” I’ll shamelessly borrow his quote and say, “If Jerry Falwell, Jr. is Christianity, then I am not a Christian.”
In fact, I’m all for retiring the term “Christian.” It’s largely meaningless, a thin veneer implying little more than checking a box. “Jesus follower” might be a decent replacement if it rolled off the tongue better, but “Christian” is too easily applied to all manner or un-Christ like behavior. Jerry Falwell, Jr. may well be “Christian,” meaning he somehow “believes in Jesus,” but I am convinced he is not following Jesus. He certainly is sullying the Christ’s name.
To these thoughts, which are mine alone, let me add the words of the Session (governing council) of the church I serve. I think them very much in keeping with following Jesus.
We are grateful to worship God in a nation that explicitly protects our freedom to do so. We affirm the freedom of others to practice as they so choose, whether they profess different creeds, a different faith, or no faith at all. We know we are living in a troubled world – we are angered by injustice, we are grief-stricken by senseless violence, we are heartbroken by cruelty. But we renounce attempts to use our anger and grief and heartbreak to stoke fear. We reject messages that tell us to be afraid of outsiders. We condemn the persecution of and discrimination against believers and non-believers around the world, regardless of whether such actions target and victimize Christians, Muslims, atheists, or those of other faiths. We further condemn the encouragement of and incitement to such persecution and discrimination whether initiated by politicians, the clergy of any faith, or violent sects claiming the mantle of religious authority.
We remember that God says “Fear not, for I am with you,” (Isaiah 41:10).
We remember that our God has given us a spirit of power and of love, not a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7).
We remember that God’s perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18).
We will, with God’s help, work to do as God commands, practicing forgiveness, standing up for those who are persecuted, and welcoming one another, as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God (Romans 15:7).
James Sledge is the pastor at Falls Church Presbyterian Church.