During the height of the Cold War, pop singer Sting released a song, “Russians”, with the following refrain: “the Russians love their children too.” In the midst of last month’s hullaballoo over the Ground Zero Mosque and the Koran burning controversies on 9/11’s annivesary, my mind drifts to paraphrasing Sting’s refrain into: the Muslims love their children too. Much has been written about the whole debate on the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, even though it is actually a few blocks away from Ground Zero and technically not a mosque. Many leaders, including Christian leaders, have denounced the Florida Pastor Terry Jones for his plan to burn the Koran. I don’t wish to re-hash all that. Rather, I want to take a look at the tendency to demonize the enemy, or the Other, in all of this.
Terry Jones, the pastor a small obscure independent congregation in Florida sees Islam as an enemy of the Christian faith. To burn the Koran is making a statement that Islam is demonic. Throughout the history of Christianity, we see burnings as used primarily for demonic-like objects/people – think of the women who were burned at the stake on the charge of witchcraft. Hence, Koran-burning, or Bible-burning for that matter, is a strong statement of the evil or danger of the book and the religion it teaches. It is either an attempt at demonizing Muslims or a result of such demonization.
So often, in the midst of strong passions and knee-jerk reactions, and abstract arguments of right and wrong, people forget the humanity of their so-called foes. We forget they are regular human beings just like everyone of us – with our inconsistencies, our foibles, our strengths, our weaknesses, our loves and our fears. Instead, we reduce our enemies into straw people – caricatures or stereotypes. For example, the images of Islam or Muslims that predominate the North American imagination are those of radical militant terrorists or the face of a nijab-covered Muslim woman.
I was born in a Muslim country – Malaysia – and grew up with Muslim Malay classmates whom I played soccer with on a weekly basis. One of my best friends in grade school was a Muslim boy who lived across the street from me until his family moved to another city. The face of a Muslim woman that comes first to my mind is not that of a nijab-covered face. In fact, it’s the face of the Muslim girl I had a crush on in high school! I can still see her dark brown skin (typical of Malays), her short, light brown hair (which is not typical), her pretty eyes and, above all, her big lovely smile. Other Muslim faces that come to mind are teachers, like the female high school Biology teacher. My point is that I grew up interacting with Muslims not as “Others” but as neighbours, friends, classmates, team mates, and teachers. They were regular human beings I interacted with on a daily basis. I see their virtues and their vices. I evaluate them as individual persons, not as “Muslims” or other stereotypical categories. I see that Muslim parents love their children too.
Even if, for the sake of argument, that Muslims are deemed as enemies, the command to love your neighbour as yourself (Luke 10:27) includes loving your enemies (Luke 6:27). When Jesus was asked to define who is a “neighbour”, he told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). In the context of Jesus’ original audience of first century Jews, Samaritans were the enemy – a religiously-distorted (Samaritans follow the Torah but with additional differences) half-breed (half-Jewish, half-Gentile) people whom the Jews fought and slaughtered over the years. Yet, Jesus made the Samaritan the hero in his parable. It was the hated Samaritan, not the highly respected priest or Levite, who acted out of love for the robbed and stricken Jew fallen by the wayside. Jesus made the hated Samaritan into the model neighbour in his story. When Jesus asked at the end of his parable, “which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” the original Jewish hearer couldn’t even bring himself to answer, “the Samaritan” but instead replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”
I often mused about how Jesus would retell this parable in North America to a Christian audience today. I suspect he would pick out highly respected Christians like Billy Graham (the iconic evangelical), or Rick Warren (of the Purpose Driven Life fame), or John Piper (famous contemporary Calvinist), or Jim Wallis (famous social activist Christian), or name your favorite Christian, to play the roles of the priest and Levite who passed by on the other side, not stopping to help a person in need. And then, I wonder if Jesus would choose either a homosexual, or a leading atheist (Richard Dawkins?), or, perhaps, a Muslim to play the role of the Good Samaritan? I wonder how that will go down in your typical American evangelical church? Jesus would probably get the same icy reaction he did back in his first century Jewish audience.
To love our neighbours, including our enemies, means we can never demonize them nor lose sight of their humanity, even if they are guilty of demonizing us. “Tit for tat” should never be a Christian tactic. Hence, we turn the other cheek to those who strike us (Matthew 5:39). Because what is at stake is not simply winning or losing, or being right or wrong. What is at stake is God’s way of life and love in us and in the world. If we win our religious battles but lose the soul of our God-directed lives, what shall it profit us but to lose the proverbial war? To score religious points by sowing seeds of hate is to gradually lose our Christ-likeness like a dripping faucet. And before we realize it, we ourselves will soon become the demons that we portray our enemies to be.