Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
Something very unusual, even extraordinary, happened to me recently. As most of my readers know, I’m a Bible scholar, which means that I sometimes go to scholarly conferences. I was driving to Atlanta from Newport News, VA a couple of months ago. I stopped in Kannapolis, NC at 7 PM to get gas, and I saw that I had a flat – driver’s side, front. My car has a donut instead of a spare, and I was still more than 200 miles from Atlanta. I don’t have a lot of experience with this sort of thing, except that I knew in the back of my mind that one should NEVER drive more than 70 miles on a donut. I called a couple of tire guys, but on one was around, and I really needed to get to Atlanta that night.
A guy pulled up in the service station next to me, rolled down his window, and asked if I needed help. He had an accent that I could not identify. I told him that I was stuck, with 200 miles of driving ahead of me on a donut. He smiled and told me that, as long as I put the donut on one of the back wheels, I should have no problems making it to Atlanta. He then got out of the car, grabbed his jack, and helped me to get the car up, get driver’s side tires off, move the rear tire forward, and put on the donut.
I asked him where he was from, and he said, “Palestine.” I asked a little more, and he told me that he was a Palestinian Muslim.
This was a time for me to be very careful. Of course, this is the sort of person that I would love to get to know better. But it was obvious that it was uncomfortable for him to give much personal information. We chatted a little as we worked, but of course I had to respect the fact that he was not there to make friends with a complete stranger. He had just seen a fellow human with a need that he could meet, and so did his best to help. I of course could have pestered him with questions, and tried to convince him of the good that my website and lectures are doing – but this was not the place. So instead I thanked him as warmly as I could.
This incident reminded me of one of the most famous of Jesus’ parables, the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” Christians who are familiar with this story do not always remember how it begins. Here is Luke 10:25-28:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind;’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
So, someone who knows the Bible (this is what the New Testament means when it refers to a Jewish “lawyer”) asks Jesus what he needs to do in order to go to heaven. Jesus does NOT say, “Pray for forgiveness, and ask me into your heart.” Instead, Jesus instructs the man to love – love God, love his neighbor. And, as the following parable demonstrates, “love” is not a feeling; it is action.
Yes, I know that we Christians believe that faith, not deeds, gets us right with God. I do believe that eternal salvation comes through faith in Christ, not from our actions. But if we take the New Testament seriously, then we have to listen when Jesus tells this man that his eternal fate rests on his behavior. To go to heaven, this man needs to love God, and love his neighbor.
The rest of the passage is more familiar to Christians (Luke 10:29-37):
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Samaritans of Jesus’ day were “unbelievers,” disliked and distrusted by the people of Jesus’ audience. They did not follow the traditional Jewish faith: among other things, they rejected most of the Old Testament (accepting only the books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy), and they rejected the validity of the temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, in Jesus’ story, it is the Samaritan who shows love for a stranger.
In this story why did the Priest and the Levite fail to help the suffering man? Jesus does not tell us why, but it is not hard to come up with plausible reasons. They were in a hurry with pressing matters; they were looking to their own safety (what if the robbers come back?) These are the reasons that Christians too often do not stop to help others in need.
In today’s environment, being a Muslim (and a Palestinian in particular) in North Carolina cannot be fun all the time. As I’ve cited earlier, attacks against Muslims in the US are up, and a number of politicians (not just Donald Trump!) are repeating unpleasant things about Islam and Muslims generally. In my reading of today’s politics, there is an excellent chance that the Republican Party candidate for President, whoever it is, will be campaigning on a platform calling for increased scrutiny of American Muslims and mosques. Will Christians support this idea? Judging from the polls, quite a few do. But this is not love. It is not Christian behavior.
Jesus tells people to love others, which includes loving those who follow religions which we call “false.” Passively allowing our government to place restrictions on adherents of other religions, scrutinizing their places of worship, is not love.
My benefactor is not Christian, but Muslim. As far as I know, Muslims do not have a story equivalent to the parable of the Good Samaritan; nevertheless, my Palestinian friend did not require it. He simply saw a stranger who needed help, and took the time and risk to give it. What role did his Muslim religion play in his decision to help me out? At the least, I can say for sure is that Islam did not stop him from showing the love Jesus taught in Luke 10.
If a Palestinian Muslim can demonstrate love to an American Christian, can American Christians love our Muslims neighbors as well? We Christians like to think that our faith is “better” than Islam. Does this mean that we demonstrate more love? Judging from my experience last week and the rhetoric of many American Christians, we have some serious competiton in the “love” department.
A Christian blog and podcast by Ray Burns.
Helping modern readers engage with ancient biblical texts