In early November last year I was invited, along with Palestinian Christian Sami Awad and Israeli Danny Sherman to speak to a group of Muslims in Phoenix, Arizona. We, as American and Palestinian Christians and an Israeli Jew, were able to speak with this community about peace-building efforts in the Middle East. It was a blessing to have this time and the people I met there were excited and willing to be a part of these peace-building efforts.
When we opened up the floor for questions about half way through our time that evening, a young Muslim boy in the audience raised his hand and asked, “Why do Christians hate us?”
Sami Awad initially answered this question. He told the boy that it’s not all Christians that hate Muslims. He said that Christians who claim to follow Jesus and hate, attack, and fear Muslims are failing to live into the teachings of Christ. For Jesus tells us to love everyone. Christians are even called to “love our enemies.” (Matthew 5:44)
When I heard this young Muslim boy’s question: “Why do Christians hate us?” My heart was broken. Hatred toward Muslims is wrong — for all of us — especially for those of us who choose to follow Jesus.
When I had the opportunity to respond to this young boy’s question, I said, “Because we don’t know you.” Getting to know people who are outside of our standard circles — particularly those outside of our own faith traditions — is a crucial step to raising awareness and enabling ourselves to build bridges that lead to peace. This is especially true for high-tension and multi-faceted subjects like the conflicts in the Middle East and the growing tension between American Christians and Muslims.
This talk took place at the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix. The same place where people organized an anti-Muslim rally and on May 29 protesters showed up outside wearing shirts with profanity and carrying weapons. I can only imagine what that young boy must have been thinking. I can only wonder if people within that community remembered our words about what it looks like to follow the teachings of Jesus. In the face of such divisive force, how might those Muslims have experienced Christian followers of Jesus?
It’s devastating to me as a follower of Jesus to see some of the ways we as Christians have responded to other people of faith. I hope that Muslims and people of other faiths who have been victimized by people claiming the name of Christ hear from me my deepest grief at this injustice. I hope these words convey my apologies on behalf of the Christian community for ways you might have been mistreated simply because of the things that you believe. I don’t believe that is what Jesus calls us to do; I believe Jesus calls us to be a lover of all people. And I believe that Jesus says to us that we should respond to the needs of all people regardless of their religion, or regardless of any other differentiating factor.
Despite the threatening site of people armed with weapons outside of the Muslim place of worship in Phoenix that night, stories of peace and stories of transformation still came out of this conflict. The Washington Post reports, “About 250 mostly armed anti-Muslim demonstrators — many wearing T-shirts bearing a profanity-laced message denouncing Islam — faced-off against a crowd of roughly the same size defending the faith in front of a Phoenix mosque Friday night.” In that city, that night, at least as many people stood for peace and community as stood for violence and division. That is not a small thing.
Usama Shami, the President of the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, invited the crowd inside to join the evening prayers. At least one protester, Jason Leger, took Shami up on this offer and later said, “It was something I’ve never seen before. I took my shoes off. I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people. We all got along,” Leger also vowed to never again wear his anti-Muslim t-shirt that he wore to the event.
That November evening I spent at the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, I said that we have to change the dialogue and change the conversation. We must get to know each other in order to pursue actions that lead to peace. I’m thankful for the story of one protester who decided to get to know his neighbor and how transformative his experience was in changing the dialogue. My prayer is that all people will make these same efforts towards peace.
I hope that as we as a national community continue to talk about interfaith issues. May we all intentionally work toward peace and reconciliation as we seek to love all people as our neighbors.