Yet again, middle Tennessee has made national news for another embarrassing episode of apparent bigotry.
In a meeting in which a representative of the local Muslim community asked her community for an extension of graciousness and indicated her own dismay at the burning of a mosque, some members of the audience jeered, and even cheered, when she mentioned the burning of the mosque.
“What about 9-11?” one audience member can be heard to shout.
I was asked by a reporter for a national public radio story, whether I found the behavior shocking in our day and age, whether we have not come further in an extension of tolerance than this.
I replied that I do not find the behavior shocking: hatred and inhospitality are as old as the hills.
But I do continue to find such behavior ironic, and find the public discussion about the differences and similarities between Christianity and Islam altogether failing to get at what I take to be some of the most important and overlooked points.
We continue to labor under two opposite stereotypes – the first stereotype particularly labors under a heavy burden of fear. This fear is quite understandable.
First, it makes sense in the long wake of 9/11. And second, the fear can be understood as an expected phenomenon of anxiety among those who are dealing with relatively rapid changes in their home culture, especially when they have long held the assumed positions of power and privilege in that community.
But whatever the sources of such fear, this stereotypical position casts the Muslim community as warmongers, never to be trusted.
“What are we going to do about all these Muslims around here who want to kill us?” is a line that has been repeated in public more than once here in middle Tennessee. It does not matter what they say, one such person once said to me; they are trying to take over and will lie to you in order to destroy our culture.
The second stereotype is an apparent polar opposite.
Against those who depict the Muslim as an inevitable warmonger, are those who adhere to an “all-religions-are-basically-the-same-thing-and-are-pursuing-peace” perspective.
In this position, religions are particular expressions of more universal sentiments and principles. All religions are about “peace” or “love” or “justice,” and they just try to get at those things in different ways.
Ironically, both these stereotypes are fundamentally wrong.
In response to the “Muslims-are-warmongers” stereotype, we must understand that the classical understanding of war in Islam parallels, in significant ways, the so-called “Justifiable War Tradition” in Christianity.
That is, neither the best of the Christian tradition nor the best of the Islamic tradition pursues indiscriminate war or unjust oppression of the other.
Moreover, another deep irony in the demographic in which I have encountered the “all-Muslims-are-war-mongers” presupposition is this: While they look down on Islam for its supposed moral inferiority to Christianity, they too often do so in a way that refuses to take seriously the very Christianity they exalt.
If we are going to insist, for example, that Islam has no moral equivalent to the Sermon on the Mount, we Christians must do so while taking that Sermon on the Mount seriously.
And the consistent witness of the early church was that the Sermon on the Mount and the whole of the teachings of the New Testament entails no retaliation or engagement in warfare, even so-called “justified” warfare.
And this brings us back around to sharply question the proponent of the view that “all-religions-are-basically-the-same-thing:” the fundamental “narrative logic,” as I like to call it, of the Islamic and Christian stories are, in fact, very different.
For the Christian story, Jesus comes as a Suffering Messiah. He insists that the means by which the world will be redeemed is through suffering love, and that his followers must, in fact, refuse to do to our enemies what our enemies have done to us.
In the Islamic story, Muhammad first counsels nonretaliation, but once he achieves a certain level of sociopolitical power, he teaches that retaliation is not only permitted, but also required, in order to check injustice and oppression.
Jesus, the suffering Messiah, says the New Testament, is killed, and yet vindicated by God in the resurrection. Muhammad the prophet, says the Quran, is victorious and vindicated by God through his military victories.
To summarize: While the “Just War” tradition of Christianity and the classical teaching of Islam parallel each other in very important ways – namely, seeking the cessation of injustice through the moderated use of martial force – it must be said nonetheless that Muhammad and Jesus are teaching something quite different.
For Jesus, vengeance is not legitimate; for Jesus, warring is not legitimate. For Muhammad, vengeance taking is legitimate; for Muhammad, the moderated exercise of war is legitimate.
So, we are left with this very challenging question, and perhaps unexpected irony: Are U.S. Christians broadly speaking more like Muhammad than Jesus?
Lee C. Camp is a professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. He is the author of “Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam and Themselves” available on Amazon, and is the host of Nashville’s “Tokens” Show.
Editor’s note: Cliff Vaughn recently spoke with Lee about the “Tokens” show in a Skype interview, which can be viewed here.
Professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University, host and creator of the world’s only long-running theological variety show, Tokens Show, and author of Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians (Eerdmans, 2020).