This morning I spent a couple of hours with some Mennonites, preaching about loving neighbors, strangers, and enemies based on Leviticus 19:18; 33-34, Luke 6; 9:51-56; and 10:25-37; and the book of Jonah. The whole context of the conversation was what it means to show hospitality to Muslims in our communities, and why this is even important.
One of my most-used examples of why hospitality and friendship are vital in this regard is the story of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the brothers who masterminded the Boston City Marathon bombing a couple of years ago. A few years prior to the bombing, Tamerlan was the subject of a documentary while attempting to make the US Olympic Boxing Team. In it, he is quoted as saying, “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them”. That’s a powerful statement, and should give us all pause, Christian or not. What if Tamerlan had one American friend at the time of the bombing? Would he have risked a friend’s life in order to kill others? Or, would having a legitimate relationship with an American deterred him from becoming a terrorist? Is friendship and hospitality an anti-terrorist action we can all take?
This example, though provocative, doesn’t do justice to my Muslim friends who are not terrorists, or future terrorists, however. NOT ALL MUSLIMS ARE TERRORISTS. The purpose of the analogy is to take what is the dominant operating framework for most Americans (that all Muslims are terrorists) and using that to make a point about how, if that is the case, friendship can be the antidote.
The other reason why I use this example is a conversation I had with my friend Mahmoud while living in Jordan. We were talking about faith and life and things, and I asked him a question about two chapters in the Qur’an that seemed to teach contradictory ways of being in the world. In the first, Christians are celebrated as close in heart and mind to Muslims. In the second, Muslims are instructed to distrust Christians and to not associate with them in friendship. Mahmoud explained to me that these surahs were written at different times into different contexts – one was written during a time of peace, and the other during a time of war. That was a remarkably simple and groundbreaking insight for me. So, I asked him, “If America were to go to war with Jordan, are you my friend?” We sat in silence for a little bit, and he responded by saying, “I don’t know”. Reading into his answer, I hear him saying, “I am your friend. I am not sure if I am willing to forsake my religious attachments for the sake of friendship”. Hypothetical became literal.
And then, this evening, I posted a link to a horrific story about the Islamic Center in Houston that was terrorized by someone who set it on fire recently (yesterday?) on Facebook. In response to me posting the story, a Facebook friend of mine seemed to praise the burning of the mosque and it’s ‘propaganda’ (before you nail him to a cross, he’s got his reasons, and he’s open to conversation (likewise, before you nail me to a cross, I’ve got my reasons too)).
A weight fell over me.
And then I realized, I have no idea how to respond to this person in a loving way. My words to my Mennonite brothers and sisters were great, but what do they look like in this situation when my neighbor also feels like my enemy? How do I take the loving action towards him and help him see with new eyes?
The thing is, Jesus’ words are hard words. They are not impossible words. His commandment to love our enemies and to pray for those that persecute us are the only way to avoid vicious cycles of violence (in word and deed) in our world today. We must heed these words if there is to be any hope for this world.
It must be stated that I jumped to a lot of conclusions and failed in my first response to my Facebook friend. I made assumptions. I didn’t listen. I was quick to speak. I became angry. I didn’t ask, “What do you mean by that?”, which is foundational for the training that I do with Christians in how to go about engaging in difficult conversations across lines of religious difference.
Through a little bit of back and forth, I am hopeful that this will end up being a fruitful conversation that leads us on pathways of peace.
The road towards reconciliation is a long and winding road…it is fit with threats around every turn. We can’t let that get in our way of being the mouthpiece of Jesus calling the whole world to be reconciled to their Creator.