“Christians in the Middle East and Africa are being slaughtered, tortured, raped, kidnapped, beheaded, and forced to flee the birthplace of Christianity. One would think this horror might be consuming the pulpits and pews of American churches. Not so. The silence has been nearly deafening,” observed Kristen Powers in a Daily Beast article.
The Christian community in northern Nigeria has faced, with growing alarm, a spreading phenomenon: Christian girls under 18 are abducted and forced to convert to Islam by radical religious leaders, sometimes linked to the “Boko haram” group. This has only recently made headlines but the terrorist campaign there against Christians has been going on for years. Churches have been attacked and Christians killed. Last July, more than 40 people, mostly students, were killed in an attack against a college and in another attack, the dormitory of an institute was set on fire while the children were sleeping and those who tried to escape the fire were gunned down.
Yet far too few Christians have spoken out about any of this violence until a Nigeria-based social media campaign — #saveourgirls – recently started making headlines. I admit I have too often been among the silent. Last September, I sat with the world, in front of my television, horrified as Al-Shabaab terrorists slaughtered over 60 Saturday afternoon shoppers in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, while sparing Muslims through a kind of twisted religious quiz: Who was the prophet’s mother, can you recite a verse from the Qu’ran, can you say the Shahada? Answer correctly, you were set free. If not, you were murdered.
Jews, Hindus, Christians, secular people — to these terrorists, we are “kuffar,” a highly derogatory Arabic term referring to non-Muslims. In the mall that day, the “kuffar” fell victim to a warped “meticulous vetting process” that qualifies some, but not others, as human beings with human rights, including the right to life.
As Christians, we must break our silence, but wise and effective action can be planned and taken only by first asking why – why is the world, and especially the Christian world, so silent?
Let me offer six reasons, and thoughts on actions we can take, speaking as a Christian who cares and is seeking to effectively speak up:
1. Fear of Islamophobia
Many Christians fear that speaking up means adding their voices to the growing wave of Islamophobia in the Christian community. When fellow Christians gin up antagonism towards Muslims and Islam by emphasizing violent acts by extremists, thoughtful and peace-loving Christians – rightly and wisely – don’t want to be part of that. But when we remain silent, we wrongly and unwisely aid and abet extremism in both the Christian and Muslim communities. Quoting Bonhoeffer, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.”
Hateful extremists must be exposed — but never used to create guilt by association. American Christians would be rightly appalled if Muslims were to quote crazy Quran-burning pastors from Florida and Kansas to characterize all Christians as hate-mongers. Israeli Jews would be appalled to be defined by the infamous “kick out all Arabs or make them our slaves” quote from extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Muslims around the world are equally mortified when horrific statements about killing “first the Saturday people, then the Sunday people” are used to characterize all Muslims.
2. Unintended Consequences
Many of us understand that much anti-Christian violence is retaliation against hawkish American foreign policy which has brought suffering and death to large numbers of innocent Muslim children, women, and men. We know that invasion and occupation, torture, Guantanamo, drone strikes, and more have been identified with “the Christian West” and Christians around the world have suffered as a result.
American Christians must stop supporting foreign policies that purchase American security at the expense of the security of others, including fellow Christians. We must publicly admit to these deadly unintended consequences and instead demand of our leaders a coherent and constructive foreign policy, undergirded by a wiser, faith-inspired vision for the future.
3. Careless Disregard of Palestinian Human Rights
Careless bias against Palestinians has become a kind of pre-requisite in many circles for being considered “pro-Israel.” As a result, many American Christians don’t want to draw attention to the ongoing occupation of Palestine even though it stirs anti-West/anti-Christian fury that endangers Christians across the Middle East. Some may even conclude that this Christian suffering is the price that must be paid to give Israel the support she deserves and needs.
Israel/Palestine solutions will require us to stand strong for Israel’s right to exist in peace and safety, while standing equally strong against the ongoing occupation. We must speak against all actions that dehumanize and oppress Palestinians and endanger Israelis, and seek solutions that are pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace, and pro-justice.
American Christians – myself included – are part of a global oil-based economy. Like addicts, we depend on repressive regimes for our carbon fix, so we don’t address their repression of religious freedom. We save on gas prices, but at great cost to the moral integrity of our souls.
Our continued addiction to dirty energy results in dirty foreign policy. We need to be more responsible for the real costs of our US energy policy, and become advocates of clean, sustainable energy; and clean, sustainable foreign policy.
5. Naiveté About the Links between Religious Identity and Violence
Many of us have avoided facing the unsettling understanding that religious identity can be turned to violent ends in any religion: Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist. To understand religious violence will require us to understand others’ violence, and our own; then demand that our faith leaders set the example of building strong identities that are benevolent, not hostile, toward others.
Along with decrying violence in the name of religion, we can celebrate the heroic acts of kindness and solidarity of more “normative” people of faith like the Egyptian Christians who’ve protected mosques and the Egyptian Muslims who’ve protected churches on many occasions over the last few years.
We don’t know what can be done, so we remain silent.
Each of us can be a pre-emptive peacemaker. We can build relationships — have-a-neighbor-over-to-dinner relationships — with people of other faiths. We, and our national and global religious leaders, must not just solve problems but build inspired friendships.
A colleague recently sent me two photographs. The first is of an official sign warning Israelis not to venture into Palestinian territory. The second sign, placed over the official sign, is homemade by Israeli women activists. “Refuse to be enemies,” it says. These Jewish women have an important message for Christians, a message that loudly echoes the words of a Jewish man who himself lived in deeply conflicted, violent times in which extremists were all-too-ready to shed blood in the name of God or nation.
We Christians cannot remain silent about the horrific violence against Christians around the world. But to respond in ways that intensify fear, hatred and mistrust will never move us beyond global religious hostility. We must be vocal advocates for the rights of all religious minorities — from Texas to Tehran, from Nashville to Nigeria. We can refuse to be silent and we can refuse double standards.
We can refuse to be enemies.
Brian McLaren is an initiator with the Cana Initiative (wwwcanainiative.org) and a participant in FaithSource, a resource for journalists seeking diverse voices of faith on important issues, sponsored by Auburn Seminary. He has written over a dozen books, including Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road.