"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Few Who Give the Many a Bad Name

This post might be an unnecessary plea, but I’m going to make it anyway.

Joann and I were in Portland last Friday evening for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. We arrived a little late, around 6pm or so (the ceremony began around 5:30pm), so we missed the lighting of the tree. It sounds like we also missed the makings of a future movie.

I’m sure everyone’s aware of the foiled Jihad attempt by a young Somalian Muslim student. I am still stunned by the whole thing; not necessarily the “holy” rage of the extremist (nothing new), but the elaborate workings of the FBI to seemingly allow this man to go forth with his plan (I'm trusting without coercion) believing he had a host of supporters were actually agents waiting to snatch him up at the coup de grace moment of his plan. It seems those downtown were never in any danger. Unless, of course, something had gone wrong or been misplaced, and the FBI’s attempted sting had gone awry. But, I’m trusting it was a flawless plan.

I wanted to use this space to remind everyone who reads my blog of what you probably already know. And that is this: we should take care to guard our hearts against the temptation to judge a community by its “exceptions.”

When I heard the news about the bomber, my heart immediately went to my Muslim students. Our school has several Saudi students, seven of whom are in my class. All are very kind, respectful, and I would even use the word “good” people. Granted I don’t know them intimately, and there’s a few who are a bit hard to figure out. But from those I’ve talked to the most, I have mostly experienced warmth, kindness, and gratitude.

I felt for them because I know that for many of us, seeing an Arab in America can often evoke a visceral response. We may even know in our heads that we shouldn’t judge, shouldn’t fear. But there is often an aura of mystery around those Muslims we encounter here, and I think where there is mystery there can often be fear. We sometimes fear what we don’t know, I believe, as I’ve recently said here.

I am trying to build bridges in my job, trying to be a reconciler in whatever way I can. During a class break on Monday, I approached four Muslim students, asking them if they’d heard the news. Two of them had, and were very sorry and clearly frustrated. I told them that I wanted them to know that I respect them and their faith, and that I refused to let one radical be a representative of the whole. They were very grateful.

I told them that I face the same challenge as a Christian. That is, there are radicals who do things in the name of Jesus that do more harm than good in the world and so dishonor the Author of our faith. They understand this, and do not judge me, just as I am seeking to avoid judgment of them.

It was a simple gesture, I suppose, but I felt it was worthwhile, as a means of making a connection as well as growing in my understanding of this religion, filled with very godly, devout people who respect and admire Jesus and even have a place for him in their faith (despite not understanding Jesus’ significance and centrality in the same way I do) and who are seeking as best as they know how to live a life honoring to God.

So take this as a reminder of what you most likely already know but could benefit from hearing again: don’t fear Muslims. Perhaps you can even join me on my new journey to gain a deeper understanding of Islam and the way its adherents express their faith. Fight that innate feeling of suspicion that arises when you encounter something foreign, unfamiliar. Don't shut out what seemingly opposes your views and way of life. Fight the temptation to generalize and stereotype. Try to remember that the news gives us the sensational, not the day-to-day goodness of the faithful and devout. And try to think of ways that common ground can be found, that respect can be shown, and that love can be shared through placing a high value on the kind of thoughts and words and actions that build relationships rather than destroy them.

I’m mostly speaking to myself, though perhaps in “overhearing” me here, there is something to be gained for you as well.


Chris said...


Great points. One thought that haunts me is that how the moderates in any movement "fear" the radicals of their own movement/culture/religion... So, the greater harm is done by Christians fearing other Christians, Muslims fearing other Muslims, Evangelicals fearing other Evangelicals... well, you get the idea.

I am not beholden to any preconceived notion of what it means to be Christian, Evangelical, or Presbyterian... but I am all those things. So, when I see abuses of radicalism in any of these multiple "cultures" I am a member of, I need to not fear, but to speak out against them... even if that means shunning/marginaizing by the group (which defers to the radical element). I refuse to let the loudest voices on the extremes be MY voice through deference, and it sounds like you do too.

When "the many" denounce "the few" who are violent, reactive, and extreme within their own movement, they gain credibility and respect from those outside the movement. I believe one value inherant in American discourse is our respect for those that "police" their own... what say you?

Matt Boswell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Boswell said...

Good words, Chris!

And, I agree. I think my Muslim students/friends are very quick to distinguish themselves from radicals among their religion.

I'd also say that, while it's good to denounce the few radicals among us, they often are worth at least hearing. We both know through studying Christian history how those initially percieved radical have made their mark on the Church, for the better.

But there's little need to hold back our critiques of those who burn books and bomb buildings. :)

Always great to hear from you!