Thursday, July 05, 2007

Fear is the Real Cancer

Recently, conservative columnist Cal Thomas compared Islam to cancer which must be purged in this “free” world of the West. (Ethics Daily columnist Bob Allen presents the story at this link.) Unfortunately, his attitude is likely representative of the attitudes of many American and British citizens toward their Muslim neighbors.

"Not all Muslims from the Middle East and South Asia want to kill us, but those who do blend in with those who don't,” Thomas observed. “Would anyone tolerate a slow-spreading cancer because it wasn't fast-spreading? Probably not. You'd want it removed."

My first reaction upon hearing of these comments was shock. One might think it would be difficult for outrageous comments from mass media personalities and political pundits to shock us any longer, but there I was. However, my shock quickly dissipated and what was left behind was sadness. Sadness, because as a clergy member in the Christian faith and Baptist tradition I know what it is to have the actions of a few color the perception of the whole.

I could recount, as so many historians more qualified than I have, a massive litany of violent acts and terrorist campaigns carried out in the name of our God. Some have even claimed, by simply tabulating acts of violence committed in the name of Christ, that Christianity is the most violent religion in the history of the world. I will not attempt to make this argument, as I do not believe it. However, I can not dismiss the history of my own faith tradition.

Unfortunately, knowledge of ancient or medieval history is not required in a search for examples. As recently as last century, member of the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations perpetrated horrendously violent acts upon their black neighbors. These domestic terrorists claimed to be living their faith and protecting their “way of life.” These terrorists claimed a Christian faith and used the Bible to defend their actions. Their acts of terror were designed to illicit the same response as modern terrorists – abject fear. Fear which would paralyze.

Too old an example? What of the horrendous “Christian” witness of modern voices like Fred Phelps? Phelps’ clan aggressively condemns nearly everyone, using a variety of vulgarities, and are perhaps most well known for picketing the funerals of soldiers. Phelps claims a Christian faith, even while preaching hate and attributing all manner of evil to the same God we worship in our churches every Sunday. As a Baptist, I know how I feel every time the media refer to Phelps' church as the Westboro Baptist Church.

What if the Ku Klux Klan and Fred Phelps of the world were allowed to define what it means to be Christian? This is what Cal Thomas has done to the Muslim faith. He has allowed a fundamentalist minority to define Islam, instead of the peaceful Muslims which even he has admitted are the majority. In our country, many non-Christians take the witness of fundamentalist Christians as representative of who Christians really are. For me, this is tragic.

I believe Cal Thomas, and those like him, have one reason for painting with such a broad brush. In further comments quoted in the same Ethics Daily article, Thomas says, “Are we resigned to them because we fear doing what is necessary more than we fear what the killers wish to do to us?” Thomas is afraid of terrorists – afraid of what they might do. For him, this fear is justified and should drive us to act. His fear leads to generalization and irrational thinking. In allowing himself to respond in such a way, he grants the terrorist exactly what he seeks.

Christ taught a better way. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus repeatedly demonstrated why acting and responding in fear was not only foolish but unnecessary. We should not fear terrorists. While we should do what we can to combat and prevent terrorism, we can not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear. This is not because we are somehow immune to the effects of the terrorist’s bomb. In a recent sermon, when commenting on Jesus’ teaching on fear and worry in the Sermon on the Mount, I said, “When we let go of anxiety, fear, and worry, and turn it over to God, we are not purchasing a fail-safe guarantee that nothing bad will ever happen to us again. However, we are assured that whatever happens tomorrow, we won’t be alone. We won’t face it alone. God will still be God, regardless of what is coming. And whatever is coming, God can handle it, whether I can or not.”

Terrorists, whether Muslim or not, are motivated by fear even as they seek to dispense it. They fear their culture is being forcibly rearranged around them. They fear the lost of power and influence in their societies. Perhaps they even fear failing to live up to the standards of those terrorist who came before them. However, this fear does not come from faithful adherence to Islam as a religion. Islam is not a religion of violence, hatred, and fear – regardless of how it is portrayed in the mass media.

I sympathize with faithful Muslims all over the world today, the same faithful Muslims whose hearts break at every act of terrorism, only to hear it labeled “Islamic Terrorism.” I cringe every time I see racism, greed, and violence justified, defended, and even labeled Christian. And I hope I am doing my part to counter the Cal Thomas’ of the world, or his eastern counter-part, who would allow the worst Muslims to define what it means to be Muslim, or the worst Christians to define what it means to be Christian.

Grace and peace,
James