Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Prayer Breakfast

So, the President did what every President has done for the last 63 years last week - he spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, a tradition in which people of all faiths are invited to slow down in the midst of political hurry, and recognize a common need for God. It's such a normal part of the calendar, I wasn't even aware of it happening until I started seeing a particular Facebook post from Franklin Graham running around the internet. In it he criticized the President's remarks and directly attacked Islam, saying the only true Muslims are violent ones and, by implication, dismissing the religion entirely.

I linked to the post, but the text of it is here:

Today at the National Prayer Breakfast, the President implied that what ISIS is doing is equivalent to what happened over 1000 years ago during the Crusades and the Inquisition. Mr. President--Many people in history have used the name of Jesus Christ to accomplish evil things for their own desires. But Jesus taught peace, love and forgiveness. He came to give His life for the sins of mankind, not to take life. Mohammad on the contrary was a warrior and killed many innocent people. True followers of Christ emulate Christ—true followers of Mohammed emulate Mohammed.

I'll be honest. This sort of perspective angers me. Infuriates me, really. It's all I can do to keep from lashing out with incredible furor. I appreciate Franklin Graham. I know a lot of people, personally, who've been helped out tremendously by Samaritan's Purse following disaster. One of the ebola doctors who made such headlines last year was working for this organization in Africa when he was infected - Kent Brantley was one of the individuals highlighted at the prayer breakfast and in the President's remarks.

At the same time, attacking a factually true statement, in the name of Christ, for political purposes is not only wrong, and sacreligious, but downright irresponsible. Attacking the core of a religion from the outside, while simultaneously ignoring the open-hearted pleas of actual adherenst that your opinion is misinformed is calloused at best and demonic at worst.

I recognize that a lot of people I know and care about agree with Graham's post, many shared it. They're going to be offended by my response. I think I'm ok with that. They're wrong. It doesn't make them bad people, simply people who happen to be way off base here. I know that's a strong statement, but a strong statement is necessary here.

Here's why:

You can read the full text of the President's remarks (and they're not very long), but there is a small section that caught the ire of Graham and others.

Now, over the last few months, we’ve seen a number of challenges -- certainly over the last six years. But part of what I want to touch on today is the degree to which we've seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.

As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another -- to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife. We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done. We see faith driving us to do right.

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge -- or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon. From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism -- terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.

We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.

The President is speaking truthfully. Lots of terrible things have been done in the name of Christ over the years, even moreso in the name of God. No Christian wants to be represented by those heinous acts. This is much the same argument made by the prominent atheists of the day - that religion has been a needless excuse for violence and we're better off without it. Graham rightfully names this a false association, the Crusades and other "religious" atrocities are counter to the God those actors proclaimed.

The point of the President's speech was not to excuse any action, but to put in perspective the violence being done today in the name of Islam. If we are unwilling to be judged by the most violent, callous Christians among us, perhaps it is unwise to judge Islam by its most violent adherents, especially when so many Muslim faces are denouncing such actions as counter to the faith.

It seems our conservative Christian response is to say those are moderate Muslims and true believers are all about violence, as is the Qu'ran. This is precisely what Graham states in his post. I've heard the same thing in casual conversation in the sanctuary after worship on a Sunday morning (one good, Christian gentleman was under the impression the only solution to Muslim terrorism is to kill all Muslims). It's not a bogeyman; I've heard these statements myself.

This is precisely the point being made by the anti-religion crowd, the one so vehemently opposed by Christians - the same one they use to accuse Islam. That's is hypocritical. It's uncharitable. It's dangerous.*

But what if Islam really is evil and violent? Waiting to oppose it will just waste time. Of course, the same could be said for Christianity 500 or 1000 years ago. The Crusades prove as much, as does slavery. Nearly every war in Europe of the Americas in the last 2,000 years had a religious component. We can and do rightfully point out that these are distortions of the gospel of peace and love Christ lived among us. But it's not as though people thought that at the time. There was no majority crying out against the injustice of the Crusades; it wasn't a case of the masses opposing the religious crimes of the powerful (if anything it was the other way around - the powerful were the only ones who seemed to know violence violated Christian principles). A census of Christian opinion in 1500 would have likely shown us the vast majority of adherents found violence completely compatible with their faith - the same way a similar census might reflect Muslim opinion today (although, frankly, I have no idea what those numbers would be - we'd probably all be surprised).

Just because people claim faith as a motivation, doesn't mean it's reflective of anyone's faith but their own. That's the point. In forgetting this important fact, we're betraying our own faith. I know a lot of people who responded to the President's remarks the same way Franklin Graham did. I know they're not calloused, faithless Christians. Quite the opposite. I'm willing to believe that one misguided opinion doesn't shape their entire lives and it certainly doesn't shape the reality of the faith underneath.

The President responds, following the remarks above, with holy wisdom:

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth -- our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.

And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion -- any religion -- for their own nihilistic ends.

Response to the President is largely about politics. It just is. People don't like him. They question his faith because they disagree with his policies. We did the same with Bush and his war. The response is partly about politics, but it's mostly about fear. So much of what's come to be known as Christian faith rests on certainty. I'm not talking about faith - the faith that God exists or that Jesus will return to make all things right - I'm talking about certainty - the notion that what I believe about God is how God really is. That's just not how things work. God is truth, not our perception of God. We're always working to improve that perception, but with humility and grace.

And, I can't really finish this post without pointing out the irony of the followers of Christ a man who came "not to take life," becoming more and more comfortable with taking life. It's a problem.

If our calling is to live lives in imitation of Christ, we should be promoting peace and love with everyone with whom we interact. One would think, if we're trying to encourage more love, peace, and understanding in the world, maybe it would be important to support and encourage those Muslims who want to move their religion in that direction. Some will say Allah isn't God - which makes no sense to me. Any religion that worships one true God is worshiping the one true God. Just because we may disagree on what that God is like and how that God might want us to act doesn't mean we're not seeking the ultimate truth.

I believe God loves and God's love changes things. If anyone rejects that, no matter the religion they claim, they reject God. If anyone accepts that, no matter their religion, they accept God. If I'm wrong. If everyone needs to think or believe a very specific interpretation of traditional Christianity, you don't get people to come over to your side by threatening them, vilifying them, or being argumentative. You win people with love. We don't repay wrong for wrong, anger for anger - those things don't work.

Our President is criticized a lot. Rightly, in many instances. This particular criticism is not only unwarranted, but completely illogical and nonsensical. It is entirely outside the spirit of the prayer breakfast itself. It's embarrassing and it makes no sense given the faith so many of us profess.

*And for anyone who's wondering, inciting a world-wide religious war is not the way to bring about the second coming of Christ. That's terrible biblical interpretation. It's also incredibly arrogant; to think we could somehow influence God's timeline in that way, and through such violence.

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