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The Crescent and the Cross: A Christian Response to Islamophobia

By Houston M. Burnside  “Previously published in UCCLM Vision & Voice.  Used with permission.”

Houston M BurnsideA friend recently said, “We can’t let all those Syrian refugees into our country. They’re Muslims.” That wasn’t the first – or the last time I’ve heard such comments.

It’s no secret that Islamophobia is alive and well in our country – even among some Christians. A church pastor in Gainesville, Florida, who set out to burn copies of the HOLY QUR-ĀN, asserted, “Islam is of the Devil.” Recently, twenty Anti-Islam rallies were organized by a group calling themselves the “Global Rally for Humanity.” Protesters were even encouraged to carry weapons where open-carry laws permitted such things. Thankfully, some of their efforts fizzled.

Pre-judging all by the acts of a few is what contributes to fear, anger and hate. We hate and fear what we don’t understand.

On May 28, 2015, the FBI issued an “INTELLIGENCE BULLETIN” warning about anti-Muslim militia extremists who are preparing to target Muslims in our country. This bulletin points out that this “Muslim bias fuels conspiracy theories about terrorist training camps.” It further states these groups push the notions that Islam is a threat to our country and that President Obama is sympathetic with their cause.

What is helpful to remember is that the United States is at war with radical terrorists – not with Islam as a religion or Muslims as a people. Muslim-Americans are citizens with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities afforded other citizens. Using stereotypes to describe Muslims is not commensurate with the teachings of Jesus, nor is it a productive way to enhance efforts to resolve conflicts.

Thank goodness there are those who are trying to make a positive difference by countering these extremist views. Several Christian organizations, including academic institutions, have expressed concern about these misunderstandings and have taken steps to identify problems and search for mutually satisfying solutions.  As early as 1989 the United Church of Christ, during its 17th General Synod, adopted a resolution calling for increased dialogue with the Muslim community. This, you will note, was before our first war with Iraq.  The text of this resolution recognized some common beliefs and traditions of Christians and Muslims as well as our society’s lack of credible information about Islam and Muslim life. It went on to assert that intolerance and injustice flow from this lack of understanding. Now, more than ever, building bridges of understanding is urgent.

In The United Church of Christ, the emphasis is on mutual understanding and respect, overcoming prejudice, fighting injustice and seeking peace.  One church that is way ahead of most of us in this effort to bridge the gap between our two faiths is the Countryside Community United Church of Christ in Omaha, Nebraska. Under the leadership of the Rev. Eric Eines, this church has become part of an interfaith effort to bring together Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations to share a single campus for worship and other related activities. That’s real togetherness.

On October 9, 2015, in response to the Global Rally for Humanity mentioned above, the Rev. John Dorhauer, General Minister and President of our denomination, clarified our denomination’s intention to be “in full solidarity with people of the Muslim faith.”  He called on our churches to organize responses to these hate rallies. Several churches did just that. Earlier, on May 29, 2015, Rev. Dorhauer stood with 250 interfaith supporters of a local Islamic center, in Phoenix, and faced down a large group of angry, armed bikers making violent threats against Muslims. Our General Minister and President practices what he preaches!

Anti-Muslim protesters, with the Global Rally for Humanity, failed to show up in Spokane, where three UCC ministers had organized a rally for support for their Muslim neighbors. When the day arrived for this planned, anti-Muslim march, The Spokane Islamic Center prepared a “full spread of food” for their Christian supporters. Many new friends were made.

Efforts like these try to counter any notion that all Muslims are our enemies. The actions of three Muslim organizations recently made this clear. The Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, along with the Arab-American Association of New York and Ummah Wide, raised over $100,000 to help rebuild Black churches in the South which were burned just days after the shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

On a personal level, in the mid 1990’s, I was asked to conduct a four-week study series on world religions for our Mission Hills United Church of Christ. It came time to talk about Islam. I invited a lay leader from the San Diego Islamic Center to attend our session to answer questions and help us gain a better understanding of his faith tradition. In preparation for this event, I visited the Islamic Center on at least two occasions. I was invited to attend one of their services. My new friend even gave me a copy of the HOLY QU-RĀN – taken right off the top of the Imam’s desk. He said, “He won’t miss it. He has several others.”

When the time came for our study session, my new friend, and a colleague from the Islamic Center, arrived with big smiles and positive attitudes about what we were attempting to do. A few minutes before starting time, my friend asked, “Could we be permitted to go over to the corner of the room and recite our prayers? It’s our regular time for prayer.”

My response was, “Why, certainly. Go right ahead.”

So, they took their small prayer rugs to the corner facing east, knelt down and said their traditional prayers. This only took a couple of minutes. They were very pleased to be allowed to do this in a Christian church.

This all took place while several of our members were arriving for the meeting. Most of those entering saw what was happening and thought nothing of it. Some even seemed pleased to see these two Muslim men praying. I did get some flack, however. The following Sunday I was informed by a couple of members that they did not approve of me letting Muslims pray in our church. It disappointed me to be made aware that a few attendees failed to get the point of that study session, which was to build bridges of understanding between our two faith traditions.

In general, churches respond to Christian-Muslim misunderstandings and conflicts in one or more of the following ways:

(1) Most encourage their members to learn the facts — find out about the beliefs and practices of Muslims around the world.  For some it’s a matter of know them to save them.  This missionary thrust often grows out of a genuine love for humankind and a desire to help others find God and eternal life.  The trouble with this tack, however, is that it is frequently viewed as offensive and demeaning by the objects of this concern and can become a formidable block to productive communications.

(2) Others take the talk but don’t touch approach where theologians and high-level religious leaders get together to discuss similarities and differences related to their respective religious traditions.  This can have some positive consequences, but only if what goes on at a high level moves on down the ladder to local churches, mosques and individuals.

(3) Another way that has been used to bridge the Christian-Muslim gap is to find social projects on which people from the two traditions can work together.  Both Muslims and Christians value social justice and can rally around such basic human needs as hunger, health care needs, economic and political disenfranchisement, immigration problems and housing.

The fundamental question in all this is, “Where must real dialogue start?”  In the first place, it needs to involve people at the local level and grow out of a genuine desire for a certain amount of social harmony and peace.  If this is not at the root of our conversation it promises to degenerate quickly into not much more that a spit-and-argue club.  A willingness to listen to others, whose views of life, God and truth seem foreign, is a basic prerequisite to meaningful dialogue. This is not easy for many of us who were raised in conservative Christian environments, where right beliefs were at the forefront of our faith.

Beyond this, genuine dialogue can only occur when we can see others as fully human, children of God.  We might take a leaf out of Martin Buber’s notebook, explore the meaning of “I-Thou” relationships and apply this to our interfaith conversations.  It is imperative that we discover and respect the way others see themselves and us. This can be quite challenging, especially when we begin to hear things about ourselves and our culture that are not complimentary. When Christians talk to Muslims, dialogue will have its best chance to occur when the participants push themselves to the point of being able to respect the views of others.

Dialogue does not mean conversion, nor must it entail compromise of basic articles of faith by either party.  It does mean entering into the humanity of another in such a way as to allow new visions of the world to evolve and new inter-human, cross-cultural relationships to develop.  It means going beyond seeking peace by threat and having the need to control others in an attempt to re-create them in our own image.  If Muslims and Christians are ever to be able to live together in peace, bridges of understanding, trust and respect must be built — and we Christians must not wait for the other side to make the first move.  It’s time for the Crescent and the Cross to be brought together for meaningful dialogue and productive work for world peace.



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NOTE:  The Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ has a valuable on-line resource which offers a brief overview of Islamic beliefs and practices. http://www.globalministries.org/mee_resources_what_is_islam


Houston Burnside is a member of the Table: United Church of Christ of La Mesa, California. He is an Emeritus Professor of Teacher Education at San Diego State University. He is also an ordained minister with the American Baptist Churches, USA. He holds both Masters and Ph.D. degrees from Claremont Graduate School, where he studied philosophy of education and religion. Houston spent twelve years in the pastoral ministry and an additional twelve years as a voluntary chaplain at Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa. A recent book he published is titled A Pew-Sitter’s Search for God.

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