The Bland Leading the Blind

Five weeks ago, responding to the urging of PCUSA moderator Heath Rada, the Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church of Swannanoa, NC, held a public “interfaith forum” on Islam, inviting young imam Mohamed Taha from the Asheville, NC, Islamic Center as their guest on a Sunday afternoon before a crowd of almost four hundred. Moderator Rada was also there to share his thoughts.rada-mlk2_medium350

Not having been there myself, I am limited to what was officially reported by the official PCUSA press release. Here are some positive observations. Linked consciously to the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the event was a call for Christians to love, not fear, people of other faiths (of course, the call, as MLK Jr. would no doubt agree, actually goes back to Jesus). Second, there is hope that this initial connection between congregation and mosque may lead to bridges of true understanding among participating Muslims and Christians. Third, a lot of people were able to enjoy “an enormous covered-dish lunch,”  in the words of Moderator Rada.

Unfortunately, there were also a number of false or misleading statements associated with this interfaith forum:

  1. Mr. Rada noted how both our faith traditions recently have been unsettled and upset by demonstrations of prejudice and discrimination around the world and here in the USA. He cited in particular “negative and hostile actions against Muslims.” While we wish an end to all prejudice and discrimination, to point out hostility against Muslims in this country while ignoring massive and horrific injustices committed by Muslims worldwide against Christians and other minorities is like complaining of a little sliver in my pinkie while paying no attention to a war victim next to me ravaged by a bomb explosion and bleeding out. But even the idea of an upsurge of hate crimes against Muslims since 9/11 proves to be a myth according to the annual statistics kept by the FBI. According to their official reports, from 2001-11, and again in 2014 (latest statistics), average annual hate crimes committed against Muslims were 6 per 100,000 Muslims. In 2014, that translated to a total of reported hate crimes against Muslims of 188. Of course, we would wish that the total was 0, but keep in mind that the total hate crimes for 2014 committed against Jews numbered 635. Another way to say this is that of all religiously motivated hate crimes for 2014, those against Muslims constituted 16.3%; those against Jews 58.2%. Both these numbers pale, however, compared to hate crimes committed against the LGBTQ community (1,160) or against the black population (1,956). It seems to me that by and large Americans have acted with great restraint in spite of organized and lone wolf attacks by self-professing Muslims against Americans on US soil.
  2. Imam Taha, in his remarks as summarized in this article cited the common heritage of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. He said both Jesus and the Koran stress love of one’s neighbor. Unfortunately, when one studies Islam closely, it becomes clear that the religion of the Arabian prophet shares little common heritage with Judaism and Christianity other than its own claims that it is of the same revelatory stream. In fact, the real claim of Islam is that it is the true religion that goes back to Abraham, and that Judaism and Christianity are heretical movements away from the original revelation of Allah. Imam Taha correctly noted that Jesus stresses love of one’s neighbor, but falsely claims such love to be an emphasis of the Koran. What is true is that the Muslim holy book requires love of Muslim brothers, but hatred toward the unbeliever (infidel) unless and until that person submits to Islam. Repeatedly Allah warns believers that if they take unbelievers as friends/supporters, they will lose Allah’s support and be relegated with unbelievers to the fires of hell.
  3. Part of the purpose of this event was to make a political statement about the rightness of welcoming Syrian (and other) refugees into our country, ultimately sending a photo of the participants under the banner “We Choose Welcome” to NC Governor Pat McCrory and all the other governors who oppose resettlement of refugees in their states. rada-mlk1_medium350Pastor Steve Runholt declared, “We choose welcome over fear.” In support of this, Moderator Rada added that the PCUSA “…stands for justice, compassion, peace, and grace,” and, “These are the values which our Lord embraced and challenged us to follow.” Pastor Runholt’s declaration seems naive to me, though on the right track. I would rather have said, “We choose prudent welcome over irrational fear,” but that doesn’t have quite the punch of the simpler sentence.” More troubling to me, and of deeper relevance to this whole “interfaith forum,” is that Mr. Rada seems to be more concerned with the values of Jesus than with Jesus himself. This underscores to me that the PCUSA is at home pursuing causes which they believe Jesus would favor (immigration, racial reconciliation and other social justice issues, anti-global warming initiatives and so on) rather than pursuing Jesus himself and the offer to all the world of the eternal salvation he has won for human beings by his self-sacrifice of love. There is nothing wrong with the “causes” named above, but they are not the overarching, divine purpose to which God has called the Church.
  4. This is seen even more clearly in the official PCUSA document mentioned by Rada regarding Presbyterian interaction with those of other religions, The Interreligious Stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which proclaims: “God calls us to have loving relationships with people of other religions. God calls us to approach others in a spirit of openness and trust as we follow Jesus Christ in respecting and affirming the freedom of others.” This statement is good as far as it goes, but if respecting the affirming the freedom of others is the end goal, it betrays the Great Commission of Jesus (Mt. 28;18-20), and belies the truth that the good news of the gospel is for every creature under heaven.
  5. Lastly, according to Pastor Runholt, during the Q&A period the imam was asked if he knew of any conversations “…going on between moderate Muslims and extremist groups that advocate violence and murder.” His response, as quoted by Runholt, is telling: “We’re not in conversation with them because they are not Muslims. What they’re doing is not what Islam teaches.” This is troubling on two levels. First, it is illogical. Imam Taha is clearly engaged with Christians during this “interfaith forum,” and yet according to the Koran orthodox Christians are enemies of Islam — clearly not Muslims. If he can dialogue with those who declare themselves non-Muslims, why can he not dialogue with those who proudly self-identify as Muslims? Secondly, in calling groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, etc., anti-Islamic, the imam is engaging in the practice of takfir — pointing to other Muslims and declaring them to be kafirs (unbelievers), and so outside the house of Islam. While this imam has the freedom to pronounce takfir, he should know, if he doesn’t already, that the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University, the leading voice of orthodoxy at the leading Islamic university in the world among the 1.3 billion Sunni Muslims, has weighed in on this issue and stated conclusively that as long as ISIS fighters and other militant groups believe in “Allah and the last day” and do not reject the fundamental principles of Islam, they are true Muslims despite any atrocities they may commit. Mr. Taha’s reason for not interacting with radical Muslims holds no water. In fact, Islam’s only hope for salvaging itself from its slide back toward the brutish and backward ways of Muhammad and his companions is for moderates to reject those beliefs and to win the minds and hearts of their radical brothers and sisters. For an imam to  make the bland statement that such radicals are not Muslims and so moderate Muslims have nothing to do with them engenders blindness in listeners ignorant enough to believe such claptrap.The bland leading the blind!
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