Mission

Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

Concluding this three-part series, I remind you of my purpose: “in the spirit of religious dialog, I am proposing Muslims join Christians in a new reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount” in order to highlight practical peacemaking strategies. Our main finding was that Jesus proposed (and led by example) “transforming initiatives” – bold actions stemming from a forgiving heart that surprised opponents into considering reconciliation and even friendship.

We often referred to the writing of leading Christian ethicist, Glen Stassen, and in particular his groundbreaking work, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (1992). Besides his innovative and insightful focus on the Sermon on the Mount, Stassen also outlined “The Seven Steps of Just Peacemaking.” Partly through his leadership in the 1980s International Freeze Campaign (to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons), Stassen’s seven steps quickly became the “ten practices” that have now gained international recognition (see the 2nd edition of his edited work, with the contribution of thirty other academics and peace activists: Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War.

I will briefly summarize the ten practices; then offer a bare-bones summary of how they were successfully applied for the sake of dramatically reducing the nuclear arsenals of both the US and the Soviet Union in the 1980s; and finally, I’ll highlight just a few initiatives on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

 

Ten Practices for Abolishing War

In the following list (see Stassen’s homepage on this), notice the three headings under which the ten practices fall: “peacemaking initiatives,” justice,” and “love and community.” Think about our previous discussion about how Jesus consistently drew on the “Servant passages” of the prophet Isaiah and how justice was mentioned 16 times and peace 14 times. Add to this his incessant call to love even enemies and work at strengthening human solidarity, as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for example.

Here are the ten practices with a very short commentary:

 

Part One: PEACEMAKING INITIATIVES

1. Support nonviolent direct action.

Nonviolent Direct Action has been gaining dramatically worldwide, ending dictatorships in Iran in 1979, the Philippines in 1986, the nonviolent revolutions in Poland, East Germany, and Central Europe, human rights advocacy in Latin America, South Africa; more recently, the Arab Spring.

2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat.

3. Use cooperative conflict resolution.

4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness.

 

Part Two: JUSTICE

5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.

6. Foster just and sustainable economic development.

 

Part Three: LOVE AND COMMUNITY

7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.

8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.

9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.

10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations.

On this last point Stassen writes,

“The existence of a growing worldwide people's movement constitutes one more historical force that makes just peacemaking theory possible. They learn peacemaking practices and press governments to employ these practices; governments should protect such associations in law, and give them accurate information.”

 

These principles of just peacemaking are on one level compatible with both just war theory and pacifism; it also challenges each one in practice. Here is Stassen’s evaluation,

 

“Each practice is recent in its widespread use, and is causing significant change. Together they exert strong influence, decreasing wars. Each is empirically happening and being effective in abolishing some wars. Each faces significant obstacles and blocking forces that are named in the chapters. We contend that just peacemaking practices are ethically obligatory for persons, groups, and governments to strengthen them and help overcome the blocking forces.”

 

Stassen offered a thought-provoking commentary on President Obama’s 2009 speech in Oslo (“What the Media missed in Obama’s Nobel Prize Address”). Though Obama mentioned “just war” three times, more importantly he spelled out all of the ten just peacemaking practices. Writing at that time, he seemed optimistic: “Missing his emphasis on the ten practices of just peacemaking makes us miss his intention, and makes us miss the new paradigm for the ethics of peace and war that gives us new hope.”

Still, he cautiously ended with this: “Let us pray, realistically, that he doesn’t end up remembered as the Afghan War President.” Obama’s record on that issue, with the increase of troops in 2010 and the expansion of drone-initiated assassinations, is doubtful at best. It speaks more of realpolitik and of reelection calculus.

That said, his emphasis on the need to negotiate directly with Teheran, thereby sidelining the prevailing hawkish discourse in Congress, is spot-on. Along these lines, Congressman Dennis Kucinich boldly outlines a just peacemaking strategy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and bellicose rhetoric toward Israel in particular.

 

“How Just Peacemaking Got Rid of the Missiles in Europe”

This is the title of Chapter 5 in Stassen’s 1992 Just Peacemaking book. An apt case study, here are its main lines. But first, consider the bleak Cold War reality of 1981:


“The United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a buildup of dangerous medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Afghanistan was being invaded and oppressed. The Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT) II Treaty was not being submitted for ratification. President Reagan was opposing the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign and attacking the Soviet Union as the evil empire. The Soviet Union was blaming the United States for the nuclear buildup. Prospects for arms control were bleaker than they had been for years. We felt powerless, defeated, despairing. European distrust of the United States was growing visibly, focused especially by the rejection of SALT II, the buildup of medium-range Euromissiles, new Cold War rhetoric, and a statement made by President Reagan that nuclear war in Europe was fightable. The long friendship built up by cooperation and sacrifice in World War II and the Marshall Plan was (sic) painfully crumbling” (p. 114-115).


Over the next few years dramatic steps were taken on all sides, starting with the peace movement in Europe – unsurprisingly powerful in Germany, as the Germans in particular were ground-zero for a potential nuclear war. Due to strong popular opposition to the Euromissiles on the domestic front, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (Social Democratic Party) proposed a “mutual zero solution” at his party’s congress in 1981. This was the idea that Randall Fosberg had presented two years earlier at a conference in Louisville, KY, giving birth to the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. Stassen was in attendance.

Increasingly, the Freeze Strategy Committee, on which Stassen served for three years, came to realize that pushing for zero new US deployments and opposing the Soviet medium-range missiles was in the interest of both parties. A mutual freeze could then lead to actual reductions in each party’s arsenal. This made sense not only because these weapons were so costly but also because Pershing II and cruise missiles could destroy the Soviet heartland. And even if the US refrained from using them, so many false warnings had already occurred in the Soviet defense system that the likelihood of a catastrophe was extremely high.

During the school year 1981-1982 Stassen was on sabbatical in Germany, during which time he was the Freeze Campaign’s International Task Force representative to the European peace movement. While attending the annual meeting of the Christian Council on Approaches to Defense and Disarmament, he met General Wolf Graf von Baudissin, former commander of the NATO Defense College and founder/leader of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy. He was also connected to several influential politicians in the West German government.

Stassen asked to meet with him, which he accepted. Realizing the momentous implication of this meeting, Stassen first devoted himself to prayer. “But who was I to be suggesting a transforming initiative by the West German government?” he mused.

Amazingly, Stassen’s plea fell on willing ears. General van Baudissin, who was hearing this scheme for the first time, answered that if the Germans and the Dutch proposed the Freeze idea NATO might accept. Then within weeks, in October 1981, Bonn, West Germany’s capital, witnessed the largest peace demonstration in its history, with several others following. In the next few days, over a million Germans marched for peace and for an end to the deployment of medium-range missiles, whether by the US or the Soviet Union.

On October 21, 1981, at the NATO meeting “the German and Dutch ministers initiated the zero solution proposal: NATO would agree to zero US deployments if the Soviet Union would reduce their medium-range missiles to zero” (p. 122). All agreed, except the US. But then, realizing that popular opinion had shifted dramatically, President Reagan announced on November 18, 1981 that he would support the zero solution.

To make a long story short, after much political wrangling between Congress and the White House and at least nine dramatic independent initiatives put forward by the new Soviet premier Gorbachev in 1987, the zero solution became reality.

What in the end broke the vicious cycle of nuclear buildup? Stassen cites three new factors: “the strategy of independent initiatives, the pressure of the people, and Gorbachev’s perception of the needs and opportunities of his situation” (p. 133). Notice too the heavy irony of it all:

 

“The Reagan Administration, which worked to undermine the Freeze Campaign, was led to its greatest foreign policy success by the very Freeze Campaign it had opposed. And the Freeze Campaign, which had been so maligned by President Reagan, was given its greatest success because President Reagan agreed that the solution should be simple and readily communicated to the people. Both were thinking the key is the grass roots, the people. God works in mysterious ways, God’s wonders to perform. Thanks be to God. Thanks also to the people” (133-4).

 

Israeli-Palestinian just peacemaking

I will no doubt write more on this topic later, so just a few comments for now … Perhaps the oldest transformative initiative since the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel was the founding of the peace village, Neve Shalom (Hebrew), or Wahat al-Salam (Arabic), “Oasis of Peace." Just off the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway is the Trappist abbey of Latrun, known for its spirituality, hospitality, and wine (maybe not in that order!).

In 1970, a Dominican brother, Bruno Hussar, obtained about one hundred acres of land from the Latrun abbey in order to start the village of peace so close to his heart. Born in Egypt from a Jewish family, Hussar was no stranger to the contradictions, humiliation, and conflict that comes from being part of a minority, branded as the “other” by the mainstream. He was dreaming of a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians could live together in mutual respect and peace. In a book that tells his story, he writes that such people “would find in this diversity a source of personal enrichment.”

And enrichment they did find … today there’s a waiting list of 500 families! Though new land is cleared for houses and agriculture every year, growth will have to stay limited. Yet the dream of having our children learn about their faith and the faith of their neighbors in elementary school and sharing religious holidays can be realized in many other settings as well.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about much more than just religion. Still, neighbors in this Oasis of Peace can sit under a Jewish Sukah during the Feast of Tabernacles or partake in a Ramadan fast-breaking meal, and the conversation, while still heated at times, can be very productive. After all, the conflict at heart is about two national groups learning to live together in dignity, justice and peace. Bruno Hussar’s transforming initiative is helping people on both sides (and beyond) visualize what it might take to get there.

Very briefly, let me end with two other initiatives. The first one I wrote about at length in my last chapter of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text – the Christians Peacemaker Teams, who just celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2011. I had the privilege of visiting the team in Hebron several times while doing research in that city in 1999. They do amazing work in the footsteps of Jesus by coming alongside existing peace and human rights groups in areas of conflict. They only come by invitation. They now have active projects in Columbia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Hebron and the village of At-Tuwani, the US-Mexican border, and among First-Nation peoples in both the US and Canada. Take a look at their introduction video.

The photo above pictures some of the participants of the 7th Bili’in Conference held in Hebron in April 2012 knocked to the ground by Israeli soldiers. A nonviolent grassroots Palestinian movement, these yearly conferences are led by the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee and the Bil’in Popular Committee against the Wall and Settlements. Bili’in is a Palestinian village that, like many others near the 1967 “Green Line,” has suffered immensely as a result of the Israeli separation wall. Yet more than any other villages, it has been the site for concerted, consistent and extremely courageous protests against the wall and Israeli occupation in general.

The highlight of the first day of the conference in Bili'in was an address by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; the second day was spent in the old city of Hebron, and the third in East Jerusalem. EU member of parliament Louisa Morgantini was in attendance for the three days, as were many internationals from various NGOs.

A group from the conference had decided to eat at the Ibrahimi School, one of the oldest schools in the West Bank (see a video shot by the students in 2011), no doubt out of solidarity. CPTers have famously accompanied children to school to protect them from the attacks of local Israeli settlers. But coming out after lunch, as the group walked back on the Palestinian side of the street (Palestinians are not allowed to walk on the much wider Israeli side), they were violently beaten by Israeli soldiers. Just to say, nonviolent protest in the West Bank is not for the fainthearted!

Second, I want to recommend to you a 2010 documentary that powerfully fleshes out Jesus’ sunna of peace. I have commented it in more detail in a blog about Bethlehem posted elsewhere. Its title is Little Town of Bethlehem and it weaves the stories of three peace activists now working together – an Israeli Jew, a Palestinian Muslim from a Bethlehem refugee camp and a Palestinian Christian, whose father founded the Bethlehem Bible College where I taught for three years. The film’s official launch in 2011 was coordinated with an international campaign for nonviolence.

So my final word is this. Jesus as prophet, or simply as a sage who taught by word and deed how to love enemies and make peace, can inspire and guide people of all faiths today. Naturally, as a Christian, I believe he’s much more than that. But as I have argued in these three blogs, nonviolent direct action was famously developed by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others – and it can be traced back to the “transforming initiatives” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. That’s a great place to start. Other faiths have their own resources for peace, as does Islam in particular – the subject of a coming blog.

Before I get to the third and last installment of this series on Jesus as the sunna (“way,” or “example”) of peace, here is some research on the Sermon on the Mount I’ve found very helpful. I write this with both trepidation and excitement, as events continue to unfold in places like Syria and Yemen, where students and ordinary people continue to risk their lives to fight tyranny in a nonviolent way. This is where we are headed in the third blog – to the now well accepted “Just Peacemaking” theory, which includes the nonviolent direct action that Gandhi and others saw in Jesus’ life and teaching.

In Gandhi’s own words, “The message of Jesus, as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount…. It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me…. The message, to my mind, has suffered distortion in the West…. Much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount” (Pinchas Lapide, The Sermon on the Mount: Utopia or Program for Action? p. 3).

Let me emphasize once more that … Jesus isn’t just for Christians, or Muslims who hold him in the highest regard, for that matter! I teach comparative religion and I have found much to learn from and emulate in the lives of religious exemplars like Muhammad, Sidharta Gautama (the Buddha), Confucius, Lao Tzu, or Ramakhrishna. But when it comes to laying out practical strategy for building peace in a world of conflict, Jesus’ example and teaching (especially the Sermon on the Mount) is indispensable.

In particular, as Muslims and Christians discuss these issues, it really helps that Jesus saw himself in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. Here is how New Testament scholar N. T. Wright makes this point:

“Jesus was proclaiming a message from the covenant God, and living it out with symbolic actions. He was confronting the people with the folly of their ways, summoning them to a different way, and expecting to take the consequences of doing so. Elijah had stood alone against the prophets of Baal, and against the wickedness of King Ahab. Jeremiah had announced the doom of the Temple and the nation, in the face of royalty, priests and official prophets … all were accused of troubling the status quo. When people ‘saw’ Jesus as a prophet, this was the kind of model they had in mind” (Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 167-8).

First we’ll dig a bit deeper into the central message Jesus proclaimed and embodied – the Kingdom of God – and in particular its interweaving of peace, justice and nonviolence. Then we’ll look again at the Sermon on the Mount.

 

A Kingdom of Peace and Restorative Justice

To begin, let’s revisit the prophetic actions on the day Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, while the crowds jubilantly proclaimed him Messiah. Intentionally fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah (9:9), Jesus directly confronted the ideology of the zealots who claimed violence was the only way to deal with the Roman occupation. Yes, he was the promised King; no, he was not mounted on a war horse, but rather on a donkey that had never been ridden.

Another clue pointing to Jesus as a king of peace and nonviolence is found in Zechariah’s original prophecy, when he wrote, “Look, your king is coming to you … humble, riding on a donkey.” The word for “humble” either in Hebrew or Greek is used, and especially by Matthew, to mean “nonviolent” – as in this Beatitude: “God blesses those who are humble [or meek], for they will inherit the whole earth.”

Clarence Jordan in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount notes that this word is used of two men in the Bible who were anything but doormats. Moses, the great prophet who confronted the power and wrath of Pharaoh, was also described as “more humble than any person on earth” (Numbers 12:3). Then Jesus himself once said to the crowd,

 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mat. 11:29).

 

Jordan concludes that the word “tamed” is more appropriate than “meek” or “humble.” He goes on, “Both of them [Moses and Jesus] seemed absolutely fearless, … and completely surrendered to the will of God” (quoted in Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, p. 40).

Back to Jesus’ riding on a donkey as he approached Jerusalem, and the last blog … At one point Jesus begins to weep, saying, “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace.” Foremost on his mind, Israel’s king is thinking about peace. Yet this only deepens his sorrow, for he knows that his people’s inclination toward rebellion and violence will only lead to the city’s destruction. It’s just a matter of time.

Then he enters the Temple, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and chasing out the merchants of animals for the sacrifices. Recent scholarship has confirmed that this is no “cleansing” of the Temple, as was often put in the past. This is no reform movement. Rather, as someone who has already predicted on six occasions that the Temple was going to be razed, Jesus symbolically declares the Temple’s function null and void. Tragically, it now awaits destruction.

This said, as the John’s gospel emphasizes so clearly, Jesus is the new Temple. In fact, Jesus chases the merchants right at the beginning of his ministry, and in response to the Jewish leaders’ ire, he responds, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). John then explains that by “temple” Jesus meant his own body. Thus for Christians, Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate sacrifice, rendering the Jerusalem Temple and its animal sacrifices obsolete. Judaism too was moving on – and especially after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.

While carrying out this action, Jesus quotes from two prophets. The first is Isaiah, from a passage in chapter 56, in which God says, “… my Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (v. 7). God mourns the exclusion of so many people, like the eunuchs, the foreigners and the outcasts. David Garland in his NIV Application Commentary (p. 438), connects this passage to Jesus’ action in the Temple:


“During his entire ministry Jesus has been gathering in the impure outcasts and the physically maimed, and has even reached out to Gentiles. He expects the temple to embody this inclusive love…. In Jesus’ day the temple had become a nationalistic symbol that served only to divide Israel from the nations.”

 

The Temple system was not only excluding those God longed to reconcile to himself. Even on its own terms, it was patently unjust. As Oxford scholar Markus Bockmuehl shows, the Temple operations were overseen by a wealthy religious and political elite who only recently had brought traders into the outer courtyard (“the Court of the Gentiles”). The picture painted by historians demonstrates how courageous and radical Jesus was on that day – and why he was killed:

 

“The Mishnah [Jewish oral tradition that was gradually being written down at the time] gives evidence of hugely inflated price fixing for sacrificial doves, which were the offering of the poor…. During those two decades (of Jesus’ teenage years and adulthood) Annas and Caiaphas together enjoyed unrivalled power as a result of successful collaboration with the occupation forces of Rome…. mwo4mephus and the rabbinic writings also concur in offering some most remarkable descriptions of the utter luxury and extravagance of the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem” (This Jesus: Martyr, Lord, Messiah, p. 70-1).


This brings me to highlight the astounding match between Jesus’ deliberate confrontation of the powers and authorities of his day on the issue of justice (Stassen and Gushee count 40 such occasions in the Synoptic Gospels) and the sixteen passages in Isaiah announcing God’s coming reign in terms of justice. Specifically in Isaiah, God’s justice is seen as “deliverance of the outcasts, the poor and the oppressed from the domination of greed and concentrated power, and the restoration of community with peace. It called for repentance for injustice” (Stassen and Gushee, p. 355). Stassen and Gushee catalog in great detail the many instances in the gospels where Jesus confronts injustice in the four areas that Isaiah was also concerned about:

 

  • injustice of greed (aggravating the poverty and hunger of the masses)
  • injustice of domination (e.g., the Pharisees’ exclusionary interpretation of the law, or Caesar’s divine claim on a coin)
  • injustice of violence (the killing of the prophets before him, including his cousin, John the Baptist, and the violent tactics of the zealots; when the war comes to you, said Jesus, don’t participate in the fighting, but rather “flee to the mountains,” Mark 13:14)
  • injustice of exclusion from community (Jesus reached out to women, lepers, tax collectors, Roman officers, etc.)


As just one example, here is a key Isaiah passage Jesus draws from in his ministry – a passage that intimately connects peace, justice and nonviolence:

 

“Look at my servant, whom I strengthen.

He is my chosen one, who pleases me.

I have put my Spirit upon him.

He will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or raise his voice in public.

He will not crush the weakest reed

            or put out the a flickering candle.

He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.

He will not falter or lose heart

            until justice prevails throughout the earth.

I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.

I will take you by the hand and guard you,

            and I will give you to my people, Israel,

            as a symbol of my covenant with them.

And you will a light to guide the nations.

You will open the eyes of the blind.

You will free the captives from prison,

            releasing those who sit in dark dungeons” (Is. 42:1-4; 6-7)

 

 

God’s reign of peace in the Sermon on the Mount

Once more, it truly pays to know the immediate backdrop of Jesus’ teaching, so as to be able to understand it in context. Recall that out of the seventeen passages in Isaiah that describe God’s future reign of deliverance, sixteen of them mention justice (like the one above) and fourteen mention peace.

Jewish indignation and anger at Rome’s domination was at an all-time high in Jesus’ day. His message of peace and reconciliation was sorely needed – and angrily resisted in some quarters. Here is how Stassen and Gushee put it:

 

“Scholars confirm that in Jesus’ time Jewish hatred of Rome was based on the religious drive for purity from corruption by foreign influences and power, on the political drive for independence and on economic resentment of the injustice of Roman taxes. Hatred and resentment often boiled up into guerilla movements and insurrections against Roman rule. Violent resistance was supported not only by the insurrectionists, who were later called ‘Zealots’, but by most groups in Israel, including most Pharisees” (Kingdom Ethics, p. 152).


In fact, the Jewish followers of Jesus did flee Jerusalem in 70 CE and until Constantine’s rise to power in the fourth century, the church, both Jewish and Gentile, did obey Jesus’ mandate of nonviolence and love of enemy. The last book written in the New Testament, John’s Revelation, draws a sharp contrast between the wanton violence of the Beasts and the faithful martyrdom of the Lamb’s disciples. Rome can never win by brute force.

What about the Sermon on the Mount? Recall that it is actually fourteen triads of traditional righteousness, followed by a vicious circle, and then a transforming initiative meant to deliver a person from that bondage (for more details, click on "14 Triads of the Sermon on the Mount" on Glen Stassen's faculty page).  So for example …

 

“You shall not kill” leads to the trap of escalating anger; the only escape is to “go and be reconciled” (Mat. 5:24).

“You shall not commit adultery” gets one stuck with a lustful eye and adultery of the heart; the only way out is to remove the cause of temptation – Jesus’ graphic hyperbole of gouging out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand (5:29-30). He might have said today, “destroy your laptop so as to starve your addiction to pornography.”

“Do not judge, lest you be judged” will mean you will be judged by the same measure – a scary thought! The solution is to “first take the log out of your own eye” (7:5).

 

In the last blog, we saw the four transforming initiatives that lead us out of the vicious cycle of revenge and violence. I want to end here with the follow-up to that paragraph.

Jesus says, “you have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy” (5:44). In this case he follows up with three transforming initiatives and then showcases the vicious circle this leads to – here, ending up like the pagans who only love those who love them, or the tax collectors who are only kind to their friends. That’s a deplorable situation to be in, Jesus implies!

This traditional teaching (actually coming from the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Qumran Community) leads to the climax of the six teachings in chapter five. The three transforming initiatives are: “Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (5:44-45).

“Love you enemies” is not about some drippy sentimentality. It’s about doing good to one’s enemy, returning good for evil, and breaking a dangerous cycle. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “Never pay back evil with more evil.” He then quotes Proverbs 25:21-22:

 

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.

If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads” (Rom. 12:17, 20).

 

What is also clear, as is throughout Jesus’ teaching, is that God’s kingdom of righteousness and peace floods into human experience as pure grace and mercy. Then on that basis we are given the privilege to participate in that gracious reign. Here, we are called to become like our Father who gives rain and sunshine to all by offering love and prayers to our enemies.

After the vicious cycle, Jesus offers a summary verse (as he does in 7:12, the famous “Golden Rule”): “But you are to be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” But, this is not moral perfection – Greek style – Stassen and Gushee hasten to add. The Hebrew and Aramaic meaning behind the Greek word means “complete” or “all-inclusive.” Love should encompass everyone, enemies included, Jesus is saying. So the transforming initiative here – and with it the apprenticeship of a whole new lifestyle and worldview – is to show love and kindness to all, with no exceptions.

Much more could be said, naturally. But hopefully this background will open the way for the next piece – how Jesus’ way can help guide us Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths and no faith, to make this a more peaceful world.

In the earliest documents of the Islamic community, we find that the word sunna (the path, or the example of a tribal leader in seventh-century Arabia) was applied to the new religious leaders – Muhammad, of course, but also the first caliphs (or successors) like Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, and even governors of far-flung provinces. Within a century or so, sunna was used almost exclusively of the Prophet himself; and still later, “the Sunna” referred to the growing collection of hadiths (oral reports about what he had said or done), which by the third century were being weeded out in order to find the most reliable accounts, which were then included in the most authoritative written collections. Hence arose the “tradition” of the Prophet Muhammad, or simply, the Sunna, the second most authoritative text for Muslims after the Qur’an.

Here, in the spirit of religious dialog, I am proposing Muslims join Christians in a new reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the longest single teaching of the gospels in Matthew 5-7. The path of Jesus that I highlight here is peacemaking.

Isa bnu Maryam, or “Jesus, son of Mary” is mentioned in 93 qur’anic verses, where we read the following facts, among others:


- A whole sura is named after Mary (Sura 19) and the Qur’an says much more about her than does the New Testament

- Mary gave birth to Jesus a virgin (3:47; 19:20-21)

- He was given “clear signs” and God “strengthened him with the Holy Spirit” (2:87)

- By God’s leave he cured the lepers, opened the eyes of the blind and raised the dead (5:110)

- Isa is a “word” God “cast upon Mary, and a spirit from him” (4:171)

- Eleven times he is given the title “Messiah”

- He is a prophet of God, the one directly preceding Muhammad (33:7; 57:26, and elsewhere)

 

These statements and others are also found the gospels. And though Jesus does not call himself a prophet (others do), he certainly stands in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, both in his message and in his deeds. On the mount of transfiguration (see Matthew 17 and Mark 9), both Moses and Elijah appear, while Jesus is transformed into a dazzling white figure before the eyes of Peter, James and John. Hence, the title of this blog, “Jesus: A Sunna of Peace.”

A quick parenthesis: the English translation I’ll be using is the New Living Translation (2nd edition, 2004), which I consider to be the state-of-the-art translation, both because of the team of scholars who worked on it and because of its philosophy of translation (“dynamic equivalence”) drawn from the fields of linguistics and anthropology. The result is a text, which in the words of the editors, seeks to “communicate as clearly and powerfully to today’s readers as the original texts did to readers and listeners in the ancient biblical world.”

Now to he Sermon on the Mount, which begins with a series of blessings Jesus pronounces, the Beatitudes (Mat. 5:3-10):

 

3 “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,

   for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

4 God blesses those who mourn,

   for they will be comforted.

5 God blesses those who are humble,

   for they will inherit the whole earth.

6 God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,

   for they will be satisfied.

7 God blesses those who are merciful,

   for they will be shown mercy.

8 God blesses those whose hearts are pure,

   for they will see God.

9 God blesses those who work for peace,

   for they will be called the children of God.

10 God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right,

   for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”

 

Note that the first and last blessing are about receiving or belonging to the “Kingdom of Heaven,” which in Mark and Luke is rendered “Kingdom of God.” Mark tells us that Jesus’ first preaching was on this theme:

 

“The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15)

 

Notice too those who are singled out for God’s blessing: the poor and spiritually hungry, those who mourn, who are humble, who “hunger and thirst for justice” (or “righteousness”); the merciful, the pure in heart, the “persecuted for doing right” and the peacemakers. It’s the last category I am highlighting here.

Coming into Jerusalem for what he knows is his last week on earth, Jesus rode on a donkey, no doubt reenacting the prophetic words of Zechariah, “Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey – riding on a donkey’s colt” (Zech. 9:9).

Spontaneously, the crowds threw their cloaks on the donkey’s path and waved olive branches, crying out, “Blessings on the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38)

As it turns out, the prophet that Jesus quotes the most is Isaiah, and for Isaiah peace is one of the five characteristics of the coming reign of God (which will be inaugurated through the coming of his “Servant,” or Messiah): 1) deliverance or salvation (17 times); 2) righteousness/justice (16 times); 3) peace (14 times); 4) joy (12 times); 5) God’s presence as Spirit or Light (9 times).

Then Luke, just after depicting Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, describes the following scene:

 

41 But as he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep. 42 “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. 43 Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. 44 … Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not accept your opportunity for salvation.”

 

Jesus weeps over the city that has killed so many prophets in the past, and which is now missing its greatest opportunity – in fact, its very salvation. If only it “would understand the way to peace,” Jesus mourns. But it’s too late, as “peace is hidden” from their eyes. Had they recognized and embraced him as their Messiah, this tragedy would have been averted.

Making peace is also the focus of Jesus’ teaching later in Matthew five. But just before that, allow me to interject a thought that I will pursue in greater detail in the next blog. Glen Stassen and David Gushee in their book, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, argue convincingly (following other New Testament scholars) that the Sermon on the Mount has mostly been misunderstood in the past. Instead of seeing it as a series of dyads (“you have heard it said … but I tell you”), we should rather see it as a series of fourteen triads (traditional righteousness – vicious cycle – transforming initiative).

So the paragraph entitled “teaching about revenge” should be read as a triad (and here I follow their translation):

 

Traditional Righteousness:

Mat. 5:38: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”

Vicious Cycle:

Mat. 5:39: “But I say to you, do not retaliate revengefully by evil means.”

Transforming Initiative:

Mat. 5:40-42: “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse one who would borrow from you.”

 

The law of the talion (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) is mentioned three times in the Torah (in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy); it also appears in the Qur’an. In the context of the Ancient Near East, it goes back to Babylonian law. But Jesus warns that this seemingly just path of revenge is in fact a dead end. Literally, Jesus says, “do not resist evil.” But that makes no sense, since Jesus often confronted evil, not least when he chased the money changers from the Temple with a whip, while overturning their tables.

Evil here in the Greek can either mean “an evil person” or “by evil means.” Further, Walter Wink showed that the Greek word “resist” or “retaliate” was used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (The Septuagint) and in the literature of the time (mwo4mephus and Philo) and most often meant “armed resistance in military encounters.” Hence, Stassen and Gushee’s translation here.

So if we are not to retaliate, even within the confines of the law of the talion, what are we to do? Is Jesus asking us to passively sit by, absorb the blows and shut up? No, he is calling for action, but one the adversary is not expecting. The action called for is a “transforming initiative” – an act that springs out of a forgiving heart; yet an act too, which forces the other to confront his or her wrongdoing and consider changing directions. It’s an initiative that seeks to change the adversarial dynamics into friendly ones; to disarm haughtiness and aggression and open the way for a human relationship built on respect.

The “transforming initiative” section here contains four imperatives in the Greek text: “turn,” “give,” “go,” and “give.” This is how Stassen and Gushee explain the “turning of the other cheek”:

 

“Turning the other cheek has been misunderstood in Western culture that thought there were only two alternatives – violence or passivity. But since Gandhi and King, we can appreciate Jesus’ teaching better. In Jesus’ culture, ‘to be struck on the right cheek was to be given a hostile, back-handed insult’ with the back of the right hand. In that culture, it was forbidden to touch or strike anyone with the left hand; the left hand was for dirty things. To turn the other cheek was to surprise the insulter, saying, nonviolently, ‘you are treating me as an unequal, but I need to be treated as an equal.’ Jesus is saying: if you are slapped on the cheek of inferiority, turn the cheek of equal dignity.”


Turning the other cheek in this case, then, is to resist evil in a nonviolent way.

What about the coat? According to the Law of Moses (Exodus 22:25-27; Deut. 24:10-13), a creditor who lends something to a needy person may take his or her coat as a guarantee, but must give it back before sundown in case that person needs it to keep warm at night. Here the rich person sees a loophole: he’ll take the poor guy’s shirt as a guarantee and not have to give it back until he’s repaid – likely with interest. What Jesus says next is both humorous and shocking: “give him your coat too,” means that you, the poor one, will stand naked in court, so as to graphically expose the rich man’s greed, pour ridicule upon him and hopefully lead him to repent of his evil ways. The weak person thus seizes the initiative and confronts the injustice; and in so doing, he displays courage and strength of character.

Going the extra mile with a Roman soldier is to show kindness to one’s enemy. A hated symbol of Rome’s military occupation of “Palestine” (its Roman name at the time), the soldier was in fact just a pawn in a wider system of oppression. While some Jewish men, the so-called “zealots,” chose to kill Roman soldiers when possible, Jesus calls instead to offer blessing. By walking an extra mile, the Jew had the chance to catch the soldier “off guard” and initiate friendship. This initiative too aims toward peace and reconciliation. We know of course the story about the Roman centurion who pleaded with Jesus to heal his young servant – and do so at a distance, because he did not consider himself worthy enough to have Jesus enter his home. Jesus turned to the crowd, saying, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (Mat. 8:10)

“Give to the one who begs.” This last transforming initiative must be read in context. Jesus spent his ministry mostly in the Galilee, a depressed area at the time, as many farmers had been driven off their lands by a combination of unfair taxation (both Roman and Jewish) and the practices of rapacious absentee landlords from Jerusalem’s wealthy elite. In fact, giving to beggars, or any kind of charity for that matter, was the only way of doing justice to the most vulnerable in a day when the gap between rich and poor had grown scandalously wide. Almsgiving is the only remedy when there is no other welfare system and injustice grinds the poor into the dust.

As I have written recently, justice was woven into the fabric of the Mosaic Law. Not just the command to harvest fields only once and allowing for the poor to glean, or even the right of the needy to glean the fields left fallow every seventh year; the centerpiece of the divine blueprint for social justice was the Jubilee Year. All debts had to be forgiven and all property acquired in the last forty nine years had to revert to the original owner. Justice meant the poor got a chance to climb out of poverty when the playing field was leveled every fifty years.

These were all meant to be signs – the sunna, if you will – of the coming Messiah: he would bring peace between nations, justice for the most disadvantaged, welcome to foreigners, friendship and reconciliation with enemies. In the words of the prophet Isaiah some seven hundred years earlier,

 

“For the Lord’s teaching will go out from Zion;

   his word will go out from Jerusalem.

The Lord will mediate between nations

   and will settle international disputes.

They will hammer their swords into plowshares

   and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will no longer fight against nation,

   nor train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:3-4).

 

What this practice of peace means in the wider context of the Sermon on the Mount is the subject of the next blog.

In the first two blogs in this Lenten series we’ve seen that poverty can only be remedied in a holistic way. Now, having examined how Christians struggle with this concept, I turn to Muslims and show how alleviating poverty represents a challenge for them too.

Though less than the Bible, the Qur’an often speaks of the poor and of the duty of believers to care for them. The word most used today for a poor person is faqir, which is found in this sense seven times in the Qur’an. Another common word is maskin (needy, with the connotation of helpless). Its plural form is used twenty-two times in the Qur’an. The biblical expression of caring for widows and orphans is missing, though verses drawing attention to the plight of orphans are frequent (twenty-three times – Muhammad himself had been one).

The two passages I offer here come from suras (chapters) of the Meccan period (between 610 and 622, before the Muslims emigrated to Medina). Notice in the first one that believers should take Judgment Day with the utmost seriousness, and that charity is first about one’s relationship with God, and only secondarily for the poor themselves. The givers’ motive is God’s pleasure; not people’s thanks or praise:

 

As for the virtuous, they will drink from cups spiced with nectar.

A spring that is reserved for God’s servants; it will gush out as they will.

They fulfill their pledges, and reverence a day that is extremely difficult.

They donate their favorite food to the poor, the orphan, and the captive.

“We feed you for the sake of God; we expect no reward from you, nor thanks.

We fear from our Lord a day that is full of misery and trouble” (Q. 76:5-10, Rashad Khalifa).

 

A similar passage alludes to the Qur’an’s cardinal virtue, gratitude. An ungrateful person will tend to hoard his or her possessions – hence the scourge of greed:

 

When the human being is tested by his Lord, through blessings and joy, he says, “My Lord is generous towards me.”

But if He tests him through reduction in provisions, he says, “My Lord is humiliating me!”

Wrong! It is you who brought it on yourselves by not regarding the orphan.

And not advocating charity towards the poor,

And consuming the inheritance of helpless orphans,

And loving the money too much (Q. 89:15-20, Rashad Khalifa).

 

So Muslims are called to give freewill offerings as often as possible, but they are also enjoined to reserve yearly one fortieth of their total assets to be distributed to the needy. This is one of Islam’s five “pillars,” zakat. That word’s verbal root means “to purify.” In that sense, this is a duty, which, once discharged, purifies the donor by atoning for several of his or her sins. But a question arises: practically, how has zakat functioned in Muslim societies to reduce poverty? Has it worked in the past and how relevant is it today?

 

A rosy but fuzzy narrative

In a rather scathing article in a journal published in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Journal of Islamic Economics, Banking and Finance), Mohammad Omar Farooq explains that against the backdrop of the resurgence of Islam in the 1970s and 1980s …

 

“…Muslims were reminded that it is religiously important to recognize that Islam has complete guidance and solution of all the social problems and not only they must seek such solutions from within Islam as a holistic source, but also Islam’s comprehensive guidance is superior to any other solution from the world-shelf.”

 

In other words, according the slogan of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (and all islamist groups in general), “Islam is the solution.” But what about poverty? “Islam solves the problem of poverty,” goes the standard reply, “since God instituted zakat, enjoining the wealthy to share with their poorer fellow citizens.”

According to Farooq, professor of economics at Upper Iowa University (see his 2011 book, Toward Our Reformation), the “fuzzy narrative” among fellow Muslims goes like this:

 

“Based on the Qur’anic revelation and the Prophetic leadership, a caring Islamic society was established. The Islamic state founded by the Prophet brought in reforms in people’s attitude and institutional policies and frameworks to help those in poverty. Within the period of Hadrat Umar’s rule (the second caliph) poverty was addressed. The measure of this success with poverty was cited as qualified zakat payers used to roam the streets to find qualified zakat recipients, but were unsuccessful.”

 

In other words, poverty was eliminated. History does not bear this out, however. The common Muslim explanation is that Islamic governance since the Umayyads (the first dynasty based in Damascus) devolved into quasi-secular dynasties, which were notoriously unsuccessful in even reducing poverty. The reason must be that the political authorities simply neglected the “institutional policies” for a “caring Islamic society.”

Farooq doesn’t buy that answer. Any kind of lesson drawn from the rule of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” (632-661), he says, is unlikely to apply to other periods of history. This is because poverty alleviation was merely redistribution from rich to poor by dipping into the state coffers dramatically swelled at the time by the booty of a rapidly expanding empire. To assert that zakat was and still is a panacea for reducing economic disparities is an argument from silence. The historical data are simply not there.

So if the solution to widespread and endemic poverty in much of today’s Muslim word is to apply “Islamic economics,” then what are we talking about? Farooq’s contention is that despite the enthusiasm for an “Islamic” middle way between capitalism and socialism starting in the 1960s, “Islamic economics” never got off the ground. What happened, in fact, was an almost immediate diversion created by the fad of Islamic banking and finance – what Farooq calls “primarily a prohibition-driven industry with a legalistic bent.” Yes, it prohibits usury (as does the law of Moses, because charging exorbitant interest rates exploits the poor), but it offers no positive strategies to stimulate the economy and empower the poor to climb out their hole.

 

The challenge of rethinking zakat today

So the rosy picture of Islam’s solution to poverty, according to Farooq, is just that – “a romanticized reading of our history.” Nor is there any systematic effort on the part of Muslim economists to actually focus on this glaring weakness:

 

“Even the field of Islamic economics has not quite picked up and focused on the challenge of poverty. Indeed, if the contemporary literature is any indication, poverty as an independent theme seems to have been ignored. For example, as much as the issue of development and growth are mentioned in the pertinent Islamic literature, focused attention to or studies of poverty is rather absent.”

 

Then Farooq comes back to the “golden age” of the Rightly Guided Caliphs and examines the efforts to redistribute the monies produced by the wars of conquest. For two reasons, this cannot provide any help for the war against poverty today.

 

First, redistribution schemes, by definition, don’t “help the poor to increase their productive capacity leading to long term earning opportunity.”

Second, wealth pouring in from the war chest of a dominant imperial army has no relevance whatsoever to the contemporary situation in Muslim countries.

On the positive side, “The Prophet did leave with us profoundly practical examples to help people become economically self-reliant, as exemplified in his guidance to a poor person to acquire an axe to gather wood and sell for income; unfortunately, such examples were not taken meaningfully to systematically develop relevant programs.”

 

In the present day, Farooq applauds the path-breaking work of Indian economist (and Nobel laureate) Amartya Sen on issues of poverty, but laments the fact that no such work has been attempted by Muslim economists, or even put into practice by various Muslim states. In his own country of Bangladesh a pioneering study was conducted by two American anthropologists in a “remote rural area of Bangladesh in the 1970s.” He explains,

 

“As part of the research they studied the problem of food shortage as insiders - living in the community the way the community did. Their sociological study based on field experience is a remarkable narrative with a deep human sensitivity. Their work, published as a brief paperback Needless Hunger drives the point home that there is not a problem of food shortage in terms of production, but there is a serious and fundamental problem of distribution. They also found that the foreign aid pouring into the country had a detrimental effect as it actually consolidates the very elite who keep the majority, the poor, powerless and hungry.”

 

All this to say that without painstaking effort to collect the relevant data using the tools of several academic disciplines, Muslim scholars should put aside the old mantra that zakat and charity will automatically wipe out poverty. Without that research no progress will be made – a sobering point, considering that the majority of the world’s poorest are Muslim.

There is hope, nonetheless, writes Farook. A recent book began to raise these issues in an interdisciplinary way, Poverty and Charity in Middle Eastern Contexts, edited by M. Bonner, M. Ener, and A. Singer in 2003. He singles out two chapters in particular. The first is by a rising star in this field, Duke scholar Timur Kuran (read about the think tank he founded, AALIMS http://aalims.org/), and it’s entitled, “Islamic Redistribution through Zakat: Historical Record and Modern Realities.” A paragraph Farooq cites is worth repeating here, as it nicely sums up a central thesis of his chapter:

 

“There has never existed a single source that offers an authoritative account of how zakat should be paid or disbursed. Accordingly, the system has never been applied consistently over either time or space. A source of immense controversy from the start, the application of zakat underwent transformations even during the Prophet Muhammad’s own lifetime. Also, during Islam’s first few centuries the application was never uniform. In view of this historical record, the current diversity in implementation is hardly surprising. Nor is it puzzling that the contemporary literature on zakat is riddled with inconsistencies and ambiguities.”

 

Since, therefore, the historical sources on how zakat was organized in the past are mostly lacking (including in the Qur’an and Sunna), it would be foolhardy to pontificate on how it should be carried out today. What is more, zakat was never meant to “alleviate poverty,” in the modern sense. As I said above, it was primarily meant to “purify” the donors and draw them nearer to God. The primary focus was never to lift the needy out of poverty. And then, of the eight possible recipients of zakat listed in the sacred texts, only three fit the category of the poor. The others might or might not be poor: the collectors of zakat themselves, those who needed to be converted to Islam, the travelers, those fighting in the way of God (a recognized jihad) and those in debt.

Another problem is that there was no agreement among jurists as to the exact criteria for designating someone as a recipient of zakat. In a study Timur Kuran conducted in Malaysia, disbursement of zakat monies to the poor ranged somewhere between ten and fifteen percent. The lion’s share went to religious education, with just a small amount given for the hajj and even less for new converts.

The second chapter Farooq highlights is by Ingrid Mattson, “Status-Based Definitions of Need in Early Islamic Zakat and Maintenance Laws,” where she argues that historically there was no common definition of who is a “poor” or “needy” person, a faqir or a maskin. Mattson, an anglo-American convert to Islam, is an Islamics scholar at the Hartford Seminary and served as the first female president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

On a theme closely related to my last blog on poverty in the US, Mattson distinguishes between those born into poverty (the structurally poor) and those brought low through various circumstances (the incidental poor). Though I have no space to delve into the details, suffice it to say that traditional zakat distribution practices favored only the incidentally poor. If anything, such a strategy of redistribution tended to reinforce the status quo – that is, keeping a permanent lid on the lower classes.

Just to give you an idea of the complexity we face today in defining poverty, let alone in trying to reverse it, here is Kuran on today’s vastly different economic and social landscape, and why this calls for a radical rethinking of zakat. In this passage he has just pointed out that the traditional base of zakat was calculated on the basis of a person’s assets. But today that could potentially leave out a large segment of the population that is otherwise well off:

 

“Although none says that contemporary forms of wealth are exempt, one is hard-pressed to find details concerning stocks, bonds, vacation homes, collectibles, retirement accounts, or savings for a child’s education, to mention just a few of those that now carry major significance. Likewise, for all the specifics they provide on agricultural income, they avoid commentary on income derived from the industrial and service sectors—neither of which is negligible in any contemporary economy.”

 

I’ll wrap up the discussion here. I’ve provided resources for the reader who wants to pursue the subject further. In the meantime, I hope to have made it clear that Muslims, like Christians and people of other faith traditions, have a lot of homework ahead of them if they are serious about reducing the stark, shocking and ominous inequalities between the haves and the have-nots of this planet. As trustees of God’s good creation, we have no choice but to get to work on this. At the same time, if we join hands we will achieve better results. No doubt too, in so doing we will please our Creator whose love and compassion for all people – and especially the poor and marginalized – is boundless.

[This is the second blog in a Lenten series on poverty]

In the first installment on poverty I argued that from a Muslim and Christian perspective the scandalous economic inequalities we now witness in our world can only be tackled with a holistic approach: short term relief for victims of hunger and natural disasters and long term pressure on the powers-that-be, locally and internationally, to redress structural injustices. Here I use the USA as a case study, and more specifically a recent debate in the media and among top policy analysts.

One of the fallouts of the “Great Recession” is a national shouting match over rising inequality, never more eloquently portrayed than by the Occupy movement’s slogan, “we are the 99%.” But lost in the shuffle is the changing nature of poverty in America. It’s getting worse and the old clichés about poverty and race are now questioned. In fact, according to New York Times columnist and respected writer/activist on behalf of the world’s poorest, Nicholas Kristof, the white working class now risks being “locked in an underclass."

Kristof was writing about the release of Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray is a scholar for the staunchly conservative American Enterprise Institute and, unsurprisingly, his book was cheered on the right and booed on the left. Yet it did spark a needed debate about a sobering phenomenon.

Shockingly, I ask myself, did it take the realization that a number of whites were joining the throngs of blacks, Latinos and Native Americans already overrepresented among the fifteen percent under the poverty line to start a national conversation about poverty? Meanwhile, racist structures continue to make it more likely for people of color to be poor. How else can you explain that 70% of the US prison population is non-white? But that’s another topic.

Nevertheless, the stormy debate generated by Murray’s book highlights important issues about poverty in the US. Among the "Five Myths about White People." Murray offers in a Washington Post article published just before his book’s release, I choose to discuss three:

 

1. Working class whites are more religious than upper-class whites – wrong, he says, for “nearly 32 percent of upper-middle-class whites ages 30 to 49 attended church regularly, compared with 17 percent of the white working class in the same age group.”

2. White working-class men have a strong work ethic – wrong again: numbers have been growing fast for working-class men giving up on full-time work or any work at all.

3. Marriage is breaking down throughout white America. Overall, this is true, but among whites, “there is a sharp class divide on marriage.” A high school education turns out to be the watershed – he defines “working class” as those with a GED or less. He explains:

"The share of upper-middle-class whites ages 30 to 49 who are married has been steady since 1984, hovering around 84 percent. During that same period, marriage for working-class whites in the same age group has fallen from 70 percent to 48 percent . . . Marriage now constitutes a cultural fault line dividing the socioeconomic classes among white Americans."

 

For Murray all three are the result of liberal social welfare policies and declining moral/religious values. Admittedly, these are complex issues; yet I make two points with confidence in this blog. First, Murray’s analysis is flawed because incomplete; and second, applying Christian values (which are overwhelmingly shared by Muslims and Jews) could help bring lasting solutions to poverty in America.

 

Poverty – with or without “values”

I will start with Murray’s commentary on the second myth – that white men with at most a high school education have lost their strong work ethic. His figures are striking:

 

“In 1968, 97 percent of white males ages 30 to 49 who had at most a high school diploma were in the labor force — meaning they either had a job or were actively seeking work. By March 2008 (before the Great Recession), that number had dropped to 88 percent. That means almost one out of eight white working-class men in the prime of life is not even looking for a job.”

 

Murray naturally excludes post-2008 figures, because his argument is that this is a systemic problem – I will argue that too, but from a different viewpoint. For him it’s caused, on the one hand, by too many government handouts; and on the other, by declining family values. Fewer and fewer men stay married and those who are seem to care less about providing financially for their families. Solid marriages are indeed a poverty buster. I’m less impressed with the failure of government programs.

But is this an issue of values? More plausibly, loss of family values could be the result, rather than the cause, of vanishing economic opportunities, especially in view of the fact that middle and upper middle-class white males seem just as religious (and married) as before. Indeed, there is more to the picture than Murray admits. Here are some figures Princeton economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman offers, as he argues that most of this white underclass phenomenon can be attributed to “a drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men”:

 

“Adjusted for inflation, entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23 percent since 1973. Meanwhile, employment benefits have collapsed. In 1980, 65 percent of recent high-school graduates working in the private sector had health benefits, but, by 2009, that was down to 29 percent.”

 

Back to Kristof, who has no trouble identifying with this problem on a personal level:

 

“My touchstone is my beloved hometown of Yamhill, Ore., population about 925 on a good day. We Americans think of our rural American heartland as a lovely pastoral backdrop, but these days some marginally employed white families in places like Yamhill seem to be replicating the pathologies that have devastated many African-American families over the last generation or two.

One scourge has been drug abuse. In rural America, it’s not heroin but methamphetamine; it has shattered lives in Yamhill and left many with criminal records that make it harder to find good jobs. With parents in jail, kids are raised on the fly.”

 

As you would imagine, this pattern wreaks havoc with families:

 

“Then there’s the eclipse of traditional family patterns. Among white American women with only a high school education, 44 percent of births are out of wedlock, up from 6 percent in 1970, according to Murray.”

 

Kristof agrees with Murray that “solid marriages have a huge beneficial impact on the lives of the poor (more so than in the lives of the middle class, who have more cushion when things go wrong).” In fact, research has shown a correlation between healthy marriages and a decrease in substance abuse and crime:

 

“One study of low-income delinquent young men in Boston found that one of the factors that had the greatest impact in turning them away from crime was marrying women they cared about. As Steven Pinker notes in his recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: “The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology.”

 

Having conceded this, however, he rejoins Krugman in saying that employment is crucial in the overall mix:

 

“Jobs are also critical as a pathway out of poverty, and Murray is correct in noting that it is troubling that growing numbers of working-class men drop out of the labor force. The proportion of men of prime working age with only a high school education who say they are ‘out of the labor force’ has quadrupled since 1968, to 12 percent.”

 

So we’re piecing together the strands of a more comprehensive explanation for soaring poverty rates: family values do matter – and as a person of faith I’ll add “spiritual and moral values” – but there are systemic injustices on the macro level that are forcing more and more people under the poverty line and keeping them there. This is above all a moral issue. It’s about the shameful fact that in the richest and most powerful country of the world poverty has steadily worsened over the last few decades (for a more in-depth rebuttal of Murray’s position see Jared Bernstein’s “Charles Murray’s Coming Apart”).

 

Old prophets and new ones

The Old Testament prophets blasted out God’s judgment on his wayward people. The eighth-century BC prophet Amos sent from Judah to the northern Kingdom of Israel based in Samaria is one among many others calling the Israelites to repentance. With great courage he intones,

 

“Come back to the LORD and live! Otherwise, he will roar through Israel[a] like a fire, devouring you completely …

You twist justice, making it a bitter pill for the oppressed.

You treat the righteous like dirt …

You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent …

For I know the vast number of your sins and the depth of your rebellions.

You oppress good people by taking bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts” (Amos 5:6, 7, 11, 12).

 

God singles out the elites, who misuse their power to trample the poor and enrich themselves at their expense, and he calls them to account.

I have long been a fan of the Rev. Jim Wallis, a contemporary prophetic voice who founded Sojourners about forty years ago – both a journal and a Washington, DC-based Christian community. His 2005 book (God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It) has a chapter that speaks to the issue of poverty in America. At one point he writes,

 

“The truth is that hungry people are going without food stamps, poor children are going without health care, the elderly are going without medicine, and schoolchildren are going without textbooks because of war, tax cuts, and a lack of both attention and compassion from our political leaders. The deepening injustice of America’s domestic policies is increasingly impossible to justify. It’s becoming a religious issue” (p. 222).

 

Wallis argues for a multi-pronged attack on poverty drawing on “the insights and energies of both conservatives and liberals” (p. 226). We shouldn’t just look to government, or the market, or churches and charities; we should especially focus on learning new ideas from grassroots projects that are actually working across the country. Indeed, we have to be committed to those conservative values of personal and moral responsibility, as well as family values. But we also can’t forget those hard-working poor that simply could never pull their families out of poverty considering their meager salaries and lack of benefits. And there’s more:

 

“Overcoming poverty … entails better corporate and banking policies and effective government action where the market has failed to address fundamental issues of fairness and justice” (p. 228).

 

During the 2004 election year at Pentecost Wallis gathered Christian leaders in Washington, “evangelical and mainline, Catholic and Protestant, black, Hispanic, Asian, and white, making a common declaration across the theological and political spectrum of the church’s life.” The outcome was a “Unity Statement on Overcoming Poverty,” which in its last paragraph reads,

 

“We therefore covenant with each other that in this election year, we will pray together and work together for policies that can achieve these goals. We will ensure that overcoming poverty becomes a bipartisan commitment and non-partisan cause, one that links religious values with economic justice, moral behavior with political commitment. We will raise this conviction in the public dialogue, and we will seek to hold all our political leaders accountable to its achievement” (p. 240).

 

Another evangelical prophetic voice is that of Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, and author of the 1977 classic book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. He has just penned a new book examining the federal deficit in parallel with the fact of growing poverty. It is aptly titled, Fixing the Moral Deficit. I have no space here to comment on it here, but I can offer a good review of the book in Sojourners.

The last contemporary “prophet” I want to highlight, is David Beckmann, a Lutheran pastor who worked for fifteen years with the World Bank, overseeing large-scale development projects, while constantly applying innovative means to reduce poverty. Then in 1991, he became president of Bread for the World, a Christian, bipartisan organization aiming to eradicate hunger in the US and around the world, including its research arm, Bread for the World Institute. “Bread” mobilizes people in the church and organizes campaigns that bring hunger and poverty to the attention of policy makers in Washington and abroad.

Laureate of the World Food Prize in 2010, Beckmann has been asked to testify in Congress eighteen times so far. Among Bread’s achievements in the last decade:

 

“Due in part to the persistent, bipartisan advocacy of Bread members, the U.S. government has tripled funding for effective programs to help developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Bread has also helped double funding for U.S. nutrition programs, assisting millions of families in the United States who struggle to feed their children. Recently, Bread for the World initiated a campaign to press Congress to reform U.S. foreign aid to make it more effective in reducing hunger and poverty, and another to protect and strengthen tax credits for low-income working families.”

 

According to their website, "14.5 percent of households struggle to put food on the table. More than one in four children is at risk of hunger." What is more, 15.1 percent of the American population lives in poverty. Bread for the World strongly believes that hunger is the only direct cause of poverty and therefore sees three main solutions for US hunger eradication:

 

1. Child nutritional programs: “Child nutrition programs—school lunches and breakfasts, summer feeding programs, and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program—are critical to ending childhood hunger. When children receive the nutrition they need, they are more likely to move out of poverty as adults.”

2. Good jobs: along with benefits that will help hard-working people to climb out of poverty.

3. Work support programs: this includes the Earned Income Tax Credit (tax breaks for the poor) and the child nutritional programs.

 

Poverty leads to hunger. When childcare, rent, transportation and utilities are paid, low-income families cut corners on food. Somehow a tax system that reduces the burden of the less fortunate, federal and state funded poverty alleviation programs, laws that help in various ways to ensure a living wage, and laws that facilitate entrepreneurship as well as the growth of US manufacturing – all of this and more is necessary to help America eradicate poverty and hunger. Soup kitchens, food coops, and the host of existing nongovernmental (secular or faith-based) charities are needed but can never even come close to solving a national problem that is fundamentally about structural injustice and oppression.

 

Values and poverty eradication

Is poverty increasing because values are eroding, as Murray claims? Yes, but those whose moral values are eroding include all of us – the poor, and to a larger extent, the other citizens who are complicit in a system that beats down the poor. Then too, the values that count when it comes to overcoming poverty are primarily compassion and love for one’s neighbor in need, and passion for justice and righteous living. And yes, strong, caring families remain the foundation of a healthy society.

Interestingly, David Beckmann also founded the Alliance to End Hunger, which includes 75 members, “corporations, non-profit groups, universities, individuals, and Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious bodies.” Indeed, these are values that all people of faith can build on together. No doubt it will take the concerted will and persistent efforts of all people of faith (and non faith) to overcome extreme poverty – starting in America.

 

 The Hebrew Bible – or the Christian Old Testament – begins with God creating the world in six days. On the sixth, after bringing forth all the animals, God created human beings in his image, both male and female. Then in verse 28 of Genesis 1 we read:

 

“Then God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.’”

 

In this creation story God imparts to humanity the mission to “rule” over the earth and its creatures. The common word used by Christians for this is “stewardship,” meaning Adam and Eve and their descendants remain accountable to God for the way in which they manage the affairs of the earth.

In a similar way, the Qur’an teaches that Adam was placed on earth as God’s “caliph” – a word also used for the political successors of Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia. But the word connotes authority as well, as the caliphs were empowered to rule in the Prophet’s stead. But more importantly, in the context of this verse in Q. 2:30, Adam is called to be God’s steward and trustee, ruling with wisdom over the creatures under him. For only he and his kind are given “the names of all things,” an expression that commentators have tied to humankind’s ability of reason and moral discernment.

I recently wrote about the environmental dimensions of humanity’s trusteeship on earth. Here I begin a series on faith and poverty, spurred on by a Lenten program at my church focused on the poor. In a blog about Fair Trade, I explored some of the complexities of the notion of poverty, emphasizing in particular the unjust structures of global trade that hinder the economic development of the poorest countries. I’ll come back to the idea of structural injustice in another blog, but from a different angle.

 

A broad approach to eradicating poverty

Poverty is no mere academic discussion. It is achingly real, and what the World Bank calls “extreme poverty” (living below $1.25 a day) affects 1.29 billion people worldwide, which represents 22 percent of the developing world. According to the UN’s World Food Programme, hunger is the world’s top health risk and one in seven people go to bed hungry every day. If, as God made clear to Cain, we are “our brother’s keeper,” this should alarm us. After all, stewardship of creation includes caring for our fellow humans too.

My main point in this blog will be to stress that as people of faith, both Christians and Muslims, God calls us to face this issue head on from both the macro level (thinking about the poorest of the poor worldwide) and the micro level (what we can do locally). God also expects us to work simultaneously on long term solutions, tackling systemic injustices globally, nationally and even locally; and on short term poverty alleviation, that is, assisting victims of floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Large relief and development organizations seek to work at both ends of this spectrum: providing urgent care for refugees, for example, but also finding ways to provide education for the children, coaching for the mothers, professional training for women and men – and all this while seeking to facilitate their transfer to a more stable and long term setting.

Though Muslims and Christians work with similar texts on the issue of creation, their traditions highlight different aspects of the “righteous society.” Still, both faiths historically have impelled their adherents to care for the poor in a holistic fashion.

 

An Islamic approach to poverty reduction

Just as there is no “Islamic” way to organize government (in spite of what many islamists might think), there is no one “Islamic” approach to tackle hunger in a twenty-first century nation-state. During the Cold War years, many Muslim scholars were prescribing some form of socialism. At the same time, oil-rich Gulf countries were eager to work with western nations, and apart from some of the strictures of “Islamic banking” (finding ways around the charging of interest), they developed economies that function seamlessly within the mechanics of global capitalism.

Still, giving to the poor is the heart of Islam. Muhammad was an orphan raised by his uncle and the Qur’an and hadith are full of exhortations to be kind to the widow, the orphan, the traveler in need, and the poor and oppressed in general. In addition, one out of Islam’s five pillars is zakat, the command to spend 2.5% of one’s net worth annually to help the indigent. It plays out in a variety of ways in Muslim societies and is not always applied literally, to be sure; yet there’s no denying this theme of compassion permeates Islamic spirituality and practice.

Ever since the Prophet ruled in Medina (622-632) as prophet and statesman, Muslims have believed that somehow piety had both a personal and communal – even political – dimension. So giving handouts to the poor was not sufficient. A just ruler had to make sure that the laws were fair and did not penalize the poor in any way. Likewise, the court system had to rule out injustice and corruption, so that both poor and rich could find justice.

Zakat has given rise to a multitude of private charities throughout the Muslim world, while at the same time Muslims expect a “godly” government to root out injustice and level the playing field in order for people of all social classes to earn a living with dignity. Social justice and compassion for the poor are key values in Islam – a fact that explains why many Muslims find the extreme economic inequalities within and between Muslim countries absolutely appalling.

Yet charity doesn’t stop with zakat for Muslims. The Qur’an enjoins them to give freewill offerings as well, or sadaqa – a word any student of Hebrew would recognize. In the second sura we read a thought similar to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you make public your free gifts, it is well. But if you conceal them and deliver them to the poor, that would be best for you, and will atone for some of your ill deeds. And God is well acquainted with all you do” (v. 271). In Jesus’ words, “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mat. 6:3).

 Finally, the ban on usury in the Qur’an, parallel to the one in the Law of Moses, is a structural mechanism designed to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor. Trade is an economic setup wherein investor and borrower share the risks of the venture. If the commercial deal succeeds, then both make a profit. If it fails, both share in the loss. By contrast, when a bank lends money to an entrepreneur with interest, any loss incurred will be borne solely by the borrower. As the Qur’an states,

 

“Those who gorge themselves on usury behave as one whom Satan has confounded with his touch. They say: ‘Buying and selling is but a kind of usury.’ But God has permitted trade and forbidden usury … God has blighted usury and blessed free giving with manifold increase. God loves not the impious lawbreaker” (Q. 2:275-276).

 

Ziauddin Sardar, whose book on the Qur’an I have examined in a blog recently (“God Consciousness and a Better World”), sees the recent economic meltdown in that light:

 

“We live in a time beset by the consequences of economic disasters. As we contemplate the results of subprime mortgages; the escalation in house prices which keeps increasing numbers of even moderately affluent people off the housing ladder; our economy fueled by an increasing debt burden on everyone; derivative trading that seeks to make money out of mis-selling to the poorest; increasing disparities between the pay of private employers and even the top management of public bodies as against the rest of the workforce; the billions paid in bonuses to those who manipulate the stock market to make money from money; there is pertinent cause for thought in this passage. Untrammeled consumerism has brought us a world of stark contrasts as well as an increasing gap between rich and poor. I see this passage as speaking directly to contemporary concerns” (Reading the Qur’an, p. 196).

 

A Judeo-Christian approach to poverty reduction

Many scholars believe that when Jesus at the outset of his ministry and in his hometown synagogue read from the Isaiah scroll, he was referring to the Year of Jubilee. Here’s the text from Luke 4:19-20:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,

that the blind will see,

that the oppressed will be set free,

and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

Besides the obvious reference to the poor as the main recipients of his ministry, as exemplified in his works of healing and exorcism, there is a wider context that only comes into focus with the last phrase, “the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” That’s the “Year of Jubilee” language.

The Jubilee came every fifty years, but it was part of a rhythm of work and rest – observing the seventh day as the Sabbath. Then, every seventh year (“Sabbath year”) all agricultural lands were to be left fallow and debts forgiven. Finally, after seven cycles of seven Sabbath years came the Year of Jubilee, during which not only were people to let the land rest; they were to forgive all debts once again and this time each property reverted to its original owner. Capital could not accumulate, nor could any kind of monopoly develop.

Leviticus 25, the major passage explaining the Jubilee, speaks of political and economic structural safeguards put into place so that wealth is fairly distributed among the people of Israel. Though it was rarely followed to the letter, this ideal of a righteous society tied to the redemption of the severely indebted and to the flourishing of the “least of these” (Mat. 25:40, 45) left its mark on both Jewish and Christian spirituality over the centuries. In fact, it was at the heart of American independence (Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, “Let Freedom Ring!”), the Civil Rights Movement, and the Jubilee 2000 Campaign, initiated in the UK, that successfully put pressure on the World Bank and IMF to cancel the debts of the world’s poorest countries.

From the core of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, alleviating poverty is a holistic enterprise. Beyond the commands to give generously to the poor we find clear indications how we humans, as God’s trustees on earth, are called to organize our respective societies so that all members can flourish according to their own gifts and abilities. Some will naturally be richer than others; at the same time, the rich will be kept from beating down those weaker than themselves.

Examples of courageous faith-based initiatives to free people of various bonds and impediments continue to inspire, like the committed Christians who helped abolish slavery in nineteenth-century England. Today a plethora of Muslim and Christian relief and development agencies dot the globe delivering aid with compassion. What is more, people of faith are joining other more secular elements of civil society in many contexts to lobby for more justice for the poor and oppressed. That story in more detail is still to follow.

Last week I happened to see Newsweek’s cover article, “The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World,” and read it immediately. My reaction: like Ayaan Hirsi’s other writings, it is less than truthful. Most cited facts are indeed “facts.” But truth, surely, lies in a balanced telling of such life-and-death stories within their wider context. She does not.

Truth is, weaving a tale of Muslim rage with Christian victims piling up from Nigeria to Indonesia conveniently adds to the political strife of a US election year. When Democrats decry the plight of beleaguered Muslims, Republican hopefuls vie for the harshest invectives against Islamic radicalism. As it turns out, Hirsi Ali works for that great bastion of conservatism, the American Enterprise Institute.

When her bestseller “Infidel” came out in 2007, the Economist (clearly right of center) opined that for a woman who certainly “fascinates,” “the Dutch-Somali politician, who has lived under armed guard ever since a fatwa was issued against her in 2004, is a chameleon of a woman … Even the title of her new autobiography reflects her talent for reinvention." That is because it had first been published in the Netherlands as “My Freedom?” and that version was more focused on defending women’s rights. The new version is mostly about leaving behind the faith of her fathers.

OK, so just because her truth-telling record isn’t spotless and she has motives for painting Islam and Muslims in the darkest possible terms, don’t the facts speak for themselves in this case? Yes, and no. My short answer is in three parts:

… she is pointing to a real problem that Muslim leaders need to address more than they have up to now;

… the growing attacks on Christian minorities by Muslims is a much more complicated issue than she makes it out to be;

… the tone and word choice, and Newsweek’s publishing it (on the cover, no less!), are all sensational and likely to fan even more the flames of fear and rancor.

Now for the long answer.

 

Widen your camera’s scope!

Hirsi Ali is right about one important fact. Christians in many Muslim-majority countries today live in fear. That is a deplorable situation that indeed needs to be discussed at the highest levels – but not in these terms. I’ll come back to her “war” discourse, but let me say here that the causes are multiple and that they vary from setting to setting. Let me add too, for the record, that this is not the case everywhere.

Nigeria’s poisonous brew of postcolonial woes

She starts with Nigeria and all the dastardly attacks by Boko Haram she mentions did take place. This is a home-grown jihadi organization that recently has linked up with al-Qaeda, according to their spokesman, Abu Qaqa, in a recent interview. Indeed, their goal is nothing short of bringing the government to its knees and replacing it with one that follows “the dictates of Allah.” But Nigeria’s tensions between its Muslim north, Christian south, and minorities in either place, have roots in the distant past.

Part of the problem comes from the vast oil reserves that are all located in the southern delta of the Niger River. Compare this to Iraq, where the oil wells are either in the north with the Kurds, or south among the Shia, but none in the Sunni middle. In both countries, oil creates bitter strife and contention.

Another factor is that the dominant tribe to the north, the nomadic Fulanis, who are still spread over several nations, used to be the dominant force in the region, mounting numerous raids to the south to grow their slave population. This was not about religion, but mostly about power and economic interests. Since the south is more developed economically, many families and clans from the Muslim tribes in the north have moved south over time.

In the central city of mwo4m, for instance, where up to last year most of the sectarian violence was located, the violence is reminiscent of the tensions between farmers and cowboys in the classic musical “Oklahoma.” The Christian farmers have resented the northern intruders and have often barred them from voting. Feeling disenfranchised, the Muslims resort to violence and the cycle feeds itself. So far, the number of victims has been fairly even on both sides.

This June I go back to Nigeria for a third two-week intensive course in a large seminary in Lagos. Some of the pastors I teach about Islam, apologetics and peacebuilding are in the north. And I’m sure the stories I’ll hear this year will be worse than ever. If anything, the rapid rise of Boko Haram could not have been possible without tacit support from at least some parts of the population. Clearly, Christian minorities in the north and Muslim minorities in the south tremble at the thought of an all-out civil war. Not surprising, after the recent spate of church bombings since Christmas, the highest profile Christian leader announced that this was a declaration of war and that Christians had the right to defend themselves wherever and whenever they could.

Yet, like the protracted war in Ireland pitting Catholics against Protestants, the Muslim-Christian struggles in Nigeria are less about religion than they are a mix of postcolonial woes and real-life issues of power disparities and injustice in a context where governance has long been characterized by corruption and incompetence. Enter Boko Haram (“Western Education is forbidden”) … This jihadi-salafi ideology (see my blog on this), without a doubt, is pouring oil onto the fire. Still, none of this bears out Hirsi Ali’s allegation of “a global Muslim war on Christians.”

In fact, the maverick mufti from Qatar and the religious rock star of al-Jazeera with a devoted global following of several hundred million, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has issued a fatwa condemning the violence on both sides and calling on the Nigerian government “to provide security and safety for all people in order to prevent strife among religious groups.” In the same statement he and the International Union of Muslim Scholars, which he heads, denounce the heinous acts of Boco Haram which are responsible for killing 150 people since Christmas 2011, "Muslims, Christians and policemen." Some Muslim leaders are speaking out; and they rightly point out that the victims are both Muslim and Christian.

Sudan’s troubled history

Hirsi Ali then moves on to Sudan. Admittedly, after the 1989 coup by which General Omar al-Bashir took over, the war with the mostly Christian south only intensified. What is more, under the strict Islamist ideology of Hasan al-Turabi, life became nearly intolerable for the Christians in the north. Easily two million people died in this 22-year war; yet skirmishes continue in border regions, despite the 2005 peace treaty and the January 2011 referendum that sealed the south’s independence. Meanwhile, another million or so people died in the brutal attacks in Darfur – once again, nomads against farmers, but all Muslims this time.

So let’s be fair: these are all common symptoms of postcolonial chaos and growing pains, especially in Africa. The mayhem is indicative of a civil war with both parties fighting. Still, responsibility lies mostly with the north – it’s for good reason that al-Bashir stands indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.

Egypt’s revolution and bumpy road ahead

Are Christians in Egypt and Iraq afraid these days? Yes, they are. But again, reasons differ. Having lived three years in Egypt in the 1990s, I can tell you that Christians have complained of discrimination and harassment from time immemorial. Sadly typical, a recent rampage against Christians in a mostly Muslim village resulted in eight Christian families expelled from the village, by decision of the local authorities. The victims were punished. In a positive development, members of parliament in Cairo stepped in to bring back five of those families. Still, a long history of prejudice and discrimination won’t go away over night.

Add to this the euphoria and chaos unleashed by the January 25 Revolution. For many Egyptian Christians, annoyance gave rise to fear. In the uncertain transition from a dictatorial government to one firmly in the grip of a military junta, which is only reluctantly ceding power to an elected parliament – whose overwhelming majority is one brand of islamism or another – any minority is going to feel vulnerable. Add to that attacks on churches with dozens killed, and even the tragic incident of the army deliberately killing peaceful Christian protesters in early October (for a larger context, see my blog on this). I never read Hirsi Ali’s figure of 200,000 Copts fleeing their homes, but I’m sure more Egyptian Christians than before are trying to emigrate.

Nevertheless, many Egyptian Christian leaders remain optimistic, figuring that while the road to democracy is bound to be treacherous, it will open up better opportunities in the long run. They have ruled out the idea of a “Christian” political party, banking on more fruitful alliances with the dominant Justice and Freedom party and its coalition partners – that do not include the ultraconservative Salafi Nour party.

Iraq, a wounded nation “pacified” by force

Iraqi Christians, by contrast, are not so upbeat. Hirsi Ali correctly notes that half of the mostly Assyrian Christians of Iraq have fled the country since the US invasion of 2003. What she leaves out of her “story telling” is that this is mostly due to the American military occupation and the violence it has spawned in Iraq. Though Sunni-Shii tensions are longstanding, Muslim-Christian ones, unlike Egypt, are not. Christians since 2003 have been perceived as somehow collaborators and thus scapegoats for the violence perpetrated by a “Christian” nation on them. Apparently, you can’t impose democracy on a nation by force – and especially one where ethnic and sectarian tensions run deep, ever embittered by the uneven distribution of oil wealth.

Pakistan and Afghanistan: a cauldron of acrimony and violence

Hirsi Ali mentions a growing number of attacks against Christians in Indonesia, and again, a lot more could be said about ethnic tensions, political grievances, and the like. She rightly calls Saudi Arabia’s handling of religious minorities “totalitarian restrictions.” But I would like to comment on Pakistan, which I see as perhaps her strongest case. Indeed, since at least the 1980s, there has been a hardening of Islamic traditional norms, and the military, in its bid to control the political elites, has only made the political opposition harden its islamist rhetoric.

Yet by far the biggest factor for Islamic radicalization in Pakistan has been the war in Afghanistan. Its government turned to Islamic symbols to counter foreign imperialism, first in supporting the CIA-backed mujahiddeen against the Soviets in the 1980s, then in their alliance with the Pashtun-led Taliban state in the 1990s. Hence, the genie was let out of the bottle, so that with the Nato-led coalition invasion of 2001, years of bitter fighting, scores of civilian casualties, and now following regular drone attacks on Pakistani soil, anti-American resentment has reached a boiling point in Pakistan. This kind of resentment only produces more venom against the already beleaguered Christian minority (about 1%).

Having said that, some clear-cut human rights violations are practically written in the law of the land. When religious positions harden in Muslim contexts, minorities suffer. The medieval law of apostasy, still on the books in a religious sense, comes into force and its corollary, the law of apostasy is, as Hirsi Ali writes, “routinely used by criminals and intolerant Pakistani Muslims to bully religious minorities.” And yes, two high profile politicians, including Punjab’s former governor Salman Taseer and the most influential Christian lawmaker, the Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, were both gunned down in January and March of 2011. Both had campaigned for the repeal of the blasphemy laws (for more on apostasy, see my blog).

Hirsi Ali mentions the attack on the World Vision compound in 2010, in which six people were killed and four wounded, and connects this to the blasphemy laws that make confessing one’s belief in the Trinity a crime. Indeed, this was a brazen act, and considering World Vision is extremely careful to avoid any action that even looks like proselytism, one can only conclude that even the presence of foreign Christians is intolerable to some Muslims.

What about Afghanistan? Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, one of several evangelical organizations that specialize in helping persecuted Christians around the world recently wrote a piece entitled, “Will There Be a Place for Christians in Muslim-Majority ‘Arab Spring’ Countries?” Though I don’t necessarily agree with all that he writes (I would be more upbeat about Egypt, Lybia and Tunisia, for instance), I stand by his analysis of the situation in Afghanistan – though I have to wonder why it’s included (it’s obviously not an Arab country!). In 2010, the last standing church structure was bulldozed and the traditional apostasy law is routinely enforced. Afghans by law must be Muslim. He mentions a recent State Department report informing us that “Afghanistan’s media law prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam.”

Every year the Open Doors World Watch List ranks the fifty countries where Christians are most persecuted. In the 2012 version, 39 were Muslim-majority countries. North Korea has been at the top of the list for decades, but Afghanistan moved up to second place, just ahead of Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Iran and the Maldives. Pakistan was listed at number ten.

 

Hirsi Ali’s “War on Christians” Discourse

By now you are probably saying, “isn’t this exactly what Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote in ‘The War on Christians’”? As I answered in the beginning, “yes and no.” Many of the facts are correct, but the context is missing. With a wider angle camera focused on each of the countries mentioned here, I hope that it’s clear that there is no “war” declared by Muslims against Christians on a global scale. Hirsi Ali herself tries to downplay the title of her piece at one point. She writes,

“No, the violence isn’t centrally planned or coordinated by some international Islamist agency. In that sense the global war on Christians isn’t a traditional war at all. It is, rather, a spontaneous expression of anti-Christian animus by Muslims that transcends cultures, regions, and ethnicities.”

OK, it’s not really a “war” against Christians. So don’t say it. And don’t put it in the title. Maybe it was Newsweek that, anxious like any media outlet to boost its sales, insisted on the title. Certainly the bloodied icon on the cover was meant to add to the sensationalism and elicit emotion – should I say shock and outrage?

There is another motive in Hirsi Ali’s piece. See for yourself:

“Over the past decade, these [the OIC and CAIR] and similar groups have been remarkably successful in persuading leading public figures and journalists in the West to think of each and every example of perceived anti-Muslim discrimination as an expression of a systematic and sinister derangement called ‘Islamophobia’—a term that is meant to elicit the same moral disapproval as xenophobia or homophobia.”

So this is it: she’s setting out to counter what she perceives as a smear campaign on the part of some Muslim organizations – a campaign that has been remarkably successful. Hence, she fights back. Her objective in this article is to pit the annoying but rather “minor” discrimination that Muslims face in the West against the outright persecution and killing of hundreds of Christians every year in Muslim countries.

To make this contrast really work, she coins an equivalent word, even though she has deridingly characterized Islamophobia “as an expression of a systematic and sinister derangement … meant to elicit the same moral disapproval as xenophobia or homophobia.” Never mind, “Christophobia” will do just fine.

This is political wrangling, and it is much more than just sparring about words. In the academic disciplines of the human sciences (from literary criticism to philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology) we call this mounting an oppositional “discourse.” More than simply language, creating a discourse is to construct a series of arguments from a particular perspective (we all have one – total objectivity is impossible). But it’s more than just words and arguments. Tone is crucial too.

On the one hand, Hirsi Ali’s piece is considerably toned down, compared to writings by Robert Spencer, Brigitte Gabrielle, or Daniel Pipes. On the other hand, she deftly builds her case by piling the most egregious acts against Christians one on top of the other and then saying, “[i]t should be clear from this catalog of atrocities that anti-Christian violence is a major and underreported problem.” This, combined with a contemptuous dismissal of Muslims’ complaints about “Islamophobia,” allows her to build up to her conclusion:

“Instead of falling for overblown tales of Western Islamophobia, let’s take a real stand against the Christophobia infecting the Muslim world. Tolerance is for everyone—except the intolerant.”

Here “Christophobia” is a virulent infectious disease that must be denounced. And then the eminently reasonable word – a darling of liberals, but which conservatives cannot dismiss either – “tolerance.” Contrast her tone to that of a recent Economist article on the same topic, or, better yet, the masterful work of scholar, clergyman and longtime resident in Lebanon and Egypt, Colin Chapman ("Christians in the Middle East: Past, Present and Future").

Notice too the use of “tale”: for her, “tales of Islamophobia” are all about exaggerated storytelling to make people sorry for Muslims. But the shoe fits on her foot too: her article is about telling a tale of woes suffered by Christians in Muslim lands. Is the litany of suffering on the Christophobia side of the ledger so many times worse than that on the Islamophobia side? Yes, in the sense that many basic human rights are denied to non-Muslims in Muslim-majority contexts and that there is much loss of life. No, in the sense that the suffering is caused by many more factors than intentional persecution. Other minorities are oppressed too. Besides, Muslims suffer as well from the lack of freedom of expression and conscience. In fact, if you count numbers of casualties, Muslims are by far the greatest victims of extremist violence.

To sum up, Christians do suffer in some Muslim countries. Some of it is outright persecution. Yet most of this hardship is due to a brutal convergence of factors that affect many Muslim societies as a whole: authoritarian regimes (thanks to the “Arab Spring,” that is beginning to change); economic woes made worse by corrupt governance; a groundswell of puritanical and intolerant religiosity; and an angry reaction to western military and political interference.

Hirsi Ali’s tale of Christophobia told in this way is inflammatory. While raising an issue that deserves careful consideration on a global scale, the tone and tenor of her article will likely short-circuit needed negotiations.

[A slightly different version of this blog was posted on the Peace Catalysts site in Nov. 2011]

Haroon Moghul is the epitome of the young, charismatic and connected American Muslim leader. A PhD candidate at Columbia University, he is a sought-after speaker on the interfaith circuit (including CNN, NPR, the New Yorker and the Guardian). He’s also a popular blogger and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Religion Dispatches. A web bio says he lives with his wife in New York City.

Moghul’s latest piece in Religion Dispatches describes his experience as an “undercover” Muslim attending an all-night Christian prayer vigil at Detroit’s Ford Field stadium. But these weren’t just any Christians. This was a TheCall event led by New Apostolic Reformation leader Lou Engle – the man who helped launch Governor’s Rick Perry’s presidential campaign at a Christian prayer rally last August.

A rally to send prayers over the Michigan mosques “like sending special forces into Afghanistan” doesn’t just send shivers down the backs of Muslims like Moghul; it gives Christians like me the jitters. But aren't you an "evangelical" too, you might be asking?

Quick parenthesis: I don't like labels, but I’ll accept the “evangelical” one, so long as you identify me with my friends at Peace Catalysts, and with a large wing of the movement that cares deeply about living out the love, respect and compassion Jesus showed toward the poor and despised of his day. Yes, I strongly believe his cross and resurrection are the lynchpin of human history; and that’s precisely why I’m so passionate about peacemaking, social justice, preserving the planet, and interfaith dialog.

I think Jim Wallis and Sojourners magazine nicely represent the growing number of evangelicals like myself who give the lie to those on the Religious Right and the secular Left who “describe evangelicals as zealous members of the ultra-conservative political base” (see his editorial in Sojourners, February 2012, or the Huffington Post article). Pigeonholing religious people – of any faith tradition – is risky business.

Meanwhile, back in Detroit, local clergy got wind of the upcoming TheCall rally. They were so upset that they set up an alternative rally of their own at the same time (see Detroit Free Press article). To Engle’s assertion that TheCall was “about turning America back to God” these Detroit church leaders retorted that he was preaching “a radical ideology that promotes hatred of gays, Mormons, Oprah Winfrey, Catholics and, increasingly, Muslims.”

The Rev. Oscar King, senior pastor of Northwest Unity Baptist Church in Detroit, also objected to TheCall’s patronizing attitude: “They're acting like we're some Third World, underdeveloped country and they're going to bring us Jesus.” Add to that a militaristic ethos that blends the spiritual with actual US foreign policy: “Leaders of the rally are calling upon Christians to target mosques across metro Detroit, comparing their efforts to the Crusades, D-Day and U.S. wars in the Muslim world.”

Actually, Haroon Moghul’s experience during the first five hours of the rally was mildly positive. First of all, no derogatory references to Muslims and no mention of gays at all. Sitting near the front, like everyone else he was swaying and dancing to the Jesus rock music, “perfectly blending in” (and likely scared not to!). Then too, he was awed by the diversity of attendants – this part “seemed to be a public relations dream come true.”

Still there was a gnawing sense that the kaleidoscope of colors and ethnicities was simply like the “united colors of Benetton” – a marketing ploy by multinationals to sell their merchandise and plug the neoliberal system that allowed them to better plunder poorer countries in the process. Or a political campaign with faces of color, “even while social mobility goes into steep decline and the middle class is eviscerated.”

I’ll come back to the political message, but at this point Moghul drops a fascinating comment. He’s uncomfortable with the music and the “worship” it represents, mostly because it’s coming from a faith tradition very foreign to him. He explains that for him as a Sunni Muslim (hinting that he has some Sufi sympathies as well) “worship” is about “the effort to establish an immediate, intimate, and contemplative connection with God”; it’s about a spirituality based on a religious law that lays out specific rituals and provides guidance in daily life.

Moghul couldn’t help it – he felt like an outsider, “because, after all, religions are not interchangeable, like different color cars of the same make and model.” Yet that was not what he found objectionable about the gathering. It was normal: he was not a Christian, and therefore could not resonate with the ambient spirituality.

Around 11 p.m., Moghul decided to take a break. He retired to an Arab restaurant, ate a meal served by a waitress in hijab, and then caught a couple of hours of sleep. Refreshed, he returned to the stadium for the 3 to 6am culmination of the vigil focusing on Muslims. This is when Moghul did start to object.

Entitled “Dearborn Awakening,” this section of the program offered prayers against the rising Islamic movement in America, of which Dearborn was its “Ground Zero.” This conspiracy discourse was taken straight from the popular speaker, US Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who regularly asserts that “Islam is a totalitarian way of life” and that “it should not be protected under the first amendment”; furthermore, that there should be “no mosques in America,” since “there is no greater threat to America than Islam.”. TheCall’s own rhetoric was all about “taking back the land” occupied by Islam in this country. That was troubling enough, writes Moghul, but the worst was yet to come.

That was when a former Muslim, “Kamal,” stood up to speak. Several aspects of this man’s story coalesced to convince Moghul that Kamal was a fraud: his ex-terrorist Lebanese background, his military missions at age 8, the erroneous claim that martyrs become “messiahs,” or that violent jihad is the only way to salvation. Maybe he wasn’t a fraud, muses Moghul, trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. But then all his talk about Muslims worshiping an idol, a false god, in total contrast to the loving and compassionate God of the Bible – this was an outright lie, a complete misunderstanding of the teaching of Islam.

So Moghul’s biggest problem with TheCall was about the outright lying and distortion of Islam. Here’s the heart of his article, the one great takeaway from his undercover experience that night:

 

“All the friendly diversity from Friday night, the warm and smiley openness, had vanished. Love and freedom were convenient catchphrases justifying the identification of nearly one-quarter of humanity with the demonic. It’s one thing to say that you’d like Muslims to convert to Christianity. Fair enough. Many Muslims want Christians to convert to Islam. It’s another thing to so brazenly misrepresent Islam. Conflicts in the past could be safely broached, but when it came to today’s war on terror, the disingenuousness and ill-spiritedness of choosing a former Muslim with the worst possible perspective on Islam revealed Engle’s agenda and its overlap with fearmongering Islamophobes.”

 

Here’s my own takeaway, in the spirit of Peace Catalysts’ stated values.

1. Above all, we seek to represent Muslims honestly, with credible research; but too, we do this with a bias toward love and peacemaking.

2. Moghul had no problems with Muslims and Christians wanting to share their faith – both sides just need to do outreach with respect and a heart that is open to listen to and learn from the “other.”

3. Let’s be up front about our politics. Moghul nailed it: Engle is closely allied with the current Republican caucus. He seems to be allergic to the idea of any state trying to provide a modicum of social justice. Unfortunately, this tends to go hand in hand with an aggressive foreign policy that seeks to uphold global US hegemony, militarily and otherwise. Politics do count, but neither should we be partisans. So as much as possible, let’s stick to principles and values that transcend current political divides – like the Bible and the Qur’an’s bias toward the poor and the inherent dignity of every human being, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, or religion.

4. As a Christian, I weep over the deceit (whether intended or not) of having great worship music and inspirational messages about the rainbow nature of the church worldwide coupled with an attempt to shove under the radar a program aimed at demonizing a billion and a half Muslims. That is so sad!

5. Our best retort, however, is not to demonize TheCall in return, but to multiply successful initiatives and cooperative ventures between Christians and Muslims that really do make a difference in the world, all in remaining true to our Lord Jesus.

 

To close, I want to thank Haroon Moghul for going to TheCall in Detroit and for writing this honest piece on his experience. I’m trying to follow Christ with all my heart, mind and strength. This piece forces me to be honest about the degree of integrity with which I do that.

[This is the 4th and last installment of the series, “Earth Warming, Faith Rising?”]

If you go back to the trailer of the “Renewal” documentary mentioned at the end of the last blog, you will hear the voice of a doctor saying that strip-mining is the equivalent of raping the land – “it’s obscene, it’s a sin.” Then he adds, “Evangelicals are starting to recognize that environmental stewardship is a deeply moral and biblical issue.”

I will get back to the issue of Evangelicals and ecology in the last part of this piece. But this is an apt summary of the themes I’ll deal with here – caring for the earth is a profoundly moral issue. And, let me add, there is a lot more to it than just global warming.

Just as Muslims hail from very diverse cultures, theological positions and spiritual orientations, so in the same way Christians occupy many different points along a wide spectrum. In this blog I’ll pick the three most influential movements in the United States and pin point some who are truly “investing in our planet,” that is, who are taking concrete steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, to rein in different kinds of pollution that disproportionately injure the poor, and to find creative ways of bringing people into harmony with God’s good creation.

First we look at a fascinating interfaith initiative by an Episcopal priest and delightfully charismatic woman, Rev. Canon Sally Grover Bingham. Then we’ll move on to the Roman Catholic Church, then on the seismic shifts in the Evangelical community.


Sally Bingham and the Interfaith Power and Light

The Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) is a formidable machine of sociopolitical change. Already with 38 state affiliates, IPL is now helping over 14,000 US congregations across the religious landscape shrink the carbon footprint of their institutions and homes. Alongside this ecological advocacy and training, the IPL aims to leverage the passion of religious people …

1. to spark a wider movement for environmental awareness

2. to lobby for “public policies in the political arena to advance clean energy and to limit carbon pollution”

The first paragraph of its mission statement reads:

“The mission of Interfaith Power & Light is to be faithful stewards of Creation by responding to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. This campaign intends to protect the earth’s ecosystems, safeguard the health of all Creation, and ensure sufficient, sustainable energy for all.”

The IPL was launched in San Francisco at the Grace Cathedral in 1998 and quickly developed as a coalition of California Episcopal churches. Then in 2000 it widened its appeal to congregations of all faith traditions, sparking a movement that “helped pass California’s landmark climate and clean energy laws.” To date, California has the most stringent vehicle fuel efficiency standards. In January 2012 the state set the goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions and growing a fleet of 1.4 million zero emission vehicles by 2025 ( see businessgreen.com). IPL is likely the most influential faith-based NGO behind these tougher standard.

Much of the credit for these successes goes to Sally Bingham, the founder and president of the Regeneration Project, which spun off the IDL campaign. Due to her stellar achievements in the environmental field, she has received numerous honors, including three honorary doctorates. According to her bio, she was “named one of the top fifteen green religious leaders by Grist magazine, was written up in O Magazine, and has been recognized as a Climate Hero by Yes! Magazine.” She sits on the boards of the Environmental Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Finally, she gathered twenty other religious leaders to write a book with her in 2009, Love God, Heal Earth.

You might be asking, “how Christian is this project?” It’s Christian in the sense that the founder is a member of the clergy and that faith was the inspiration behind her own tireless efforts over the last couple of decades. But IPL is also by design an interfaith project – securing the participation of the widest possible spectrum of religious communities. Environmental issues have been high on the agenda of Mainline Protestant churches for decades now, with the US Roman Catholic Church not far behind. Sally Bingham’s genius was to cast the net much more widely, seeking to spur those who hadn’t either given the ecological crisis much thought, or hadn’t done much about it yet. The IPL mission statement addresses this priority:

“Global warming is one of the biggest threats facing humanity today. The very existence of life — life that religious people are called to protect — is jeopardized by our continued dependency on fossil fuels for energy. Every major religion has a mandate to care for Creation. We were given natural resources to sustain us, but we were also given the responsibility to act as good stewards and preserve life for future generations.”


Some Roman Catholic Initiatives

Since the 1970s a lay Catholic movement had been slowly gathering momentum in a quest to bring “an environmental ethic of stewardship” to the attention of church leaders. Then Pope John Paul II made this declaration in a 1990 message on the occasion of the World Day for Peace,

“The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions. . . . Today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone…. When the ecological crisis is set within the broader context of the search for peace within society, we can understand better the importance of giving attention to what the earth and its atmosphere are telling us: namely, that there is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral issue.”

This message (“Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation”) was a great boon to all the activists struggling in the shadows. It became the necessary launching pad for a reinvigorated campaign of environmental awareness and commitment in the wider Catholic communion. Then in 1993 the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a declaration, “Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching.” The following year, with help from the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, the USCCB established the Environmental Justice Program formed around the same time.

Meanwhile, small grants were given to those congregations and dioceses willing to implement projects on behalf of the poor threatened by environmental hazards, to reclaim dilapidated properties for green purposes, and to “advance new regulations on mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants” (catholicclimatecovenant.org).

Notice the unique contribution of Catholic social ethics to this wider faith-based coalition. The longstanding principle of the “preferential option for the poor” is clearly woven into this Catholic concern for those most devastated by the impact of industrial pollution and climate change. Hence the USCCB issued another pastoral letter in 2001, entitled, “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good.” This led in 2006 to the launching of the Catholic Coalition for Climate Change, bringing under its wing a dozen national Catholic organizations desiring to integrate ecological justice into their existing programs. As one might expect, this activist network was able to implement significant change at the parish and diocesan levels too.

Then on World Peace Day, exactly twenty years after John Paul II’s landmark address on faith and environment, Pope Benedict XVI chose to build directly on his predecessor’s legacy. Take note especially of the link he draws between creation care, social justice and peace:

“If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation…. Man’s inhumanity to man has given rise to numerous threats to peace…. Yet no less troubling are the threats arising from the neglect – if not downright misuse – of the earth and the natural goods that God has given us…. Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change … attention also needs to be paid to the world-wide problem of water and to the global water cycle system, which is of prime importance for life on earth and whose stability could be seriously jeopardized by climate change.”


Evangelical Clashes and Accomplishments

[For more details on this section, see my paper “Evangelicals and Ecology]

Evangelicals, by definition, have no centralized institutions like their Catholic brethren. The closest you come to the USCCB is the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which claims to speak for 45,000 congregations scattered across some forty conservative Protestant denominations. The watershed document on sociopolitical involvement for this group came in 2004, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility."

Three brief historical remarks will help you see why I use the word “watershed”:


1. Heirs of the “fundamentalist” movement of the 1920s (think of the “Scopes Trials”), evangelicals broke off from their inward-looking, bunker-mentality conservative Protestant brethren after WWII, mostly under the leadership of Billy Graham and Harold John Ockenga and under the banner of institutions like Fuller Theological Seminary. The newer label “evangelical” in this context implied more self-confidence about one’s faith and one’s ability to both evangelize and engage the wider culture intellectually.


2. A 2000 book by sociologist Christian Smith (Christian America: What Evangelicals Really Want) provided some useful data about US conservative Protestants (29% of the total population). Smith discovered that the best way to understand this population was to use the respondents’ self-identification in his survey work. This resulted in three overlapping groups: “evangelicals” (11.2 percent); “fundamentalists” (12.8 percent); and “members of conservative Protestant denominations.”


2. The birth of the Christian Right in 1979, sparked by the parallel efforts of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, marked the beginning of an evangelical/fundamentalist bid for political power. Yet with prominent organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council at the forefront, it was almost exclusively focused on overturning the Roe vs Wade ruling on abortion, reestablishing (Christian) prayers in public schools, and reversing the advance of gay and lesbian rights.


All along a minority view had been pushing for a wider evangelical agenda – in the words of the Sojourners’s website, an agenda of “racial and social justice,” “life and peace,” and “environmental stewardship.” Both Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action began their parallel movements in the early 1970s.

With all this as a backdrop, it does seem that the 2004 NAE document For the Health of the Nation was pivotal. Yet, for all its advocacy of Christian involvement in bettering all aspects of American society, it was nearly silent on environmental issues:

“Evangelicals may not always agree about policy, but we realize that we have many callings and commitments in common: commitments to the protection and well-being of families and children, of the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the unborn, of the persecuted and oppressed, and of the rest of the created order. While these issues do not exhaust the concerns of good government, they provide the platform for evangelicals to engage in common action.”

Only the phrase “the rest of the created order” hinted at some ecological awareness. Clearly, some powerful leaders in the movement opposed any language that might refer to global warming. While the “Christian Right” and the wider Republican establishment still officially repudiate the notion that climate change is either happening, or – Heaven forbid – might be caused by human behavior, a growing number of Evangelicals (and especially in the twenty-somethings bracket) are certain that environmental destruction is an urgent problem right now.

Behind the scenes – also going back to the 1970s – was the work of Calvin DeWitt, environmental scientist and founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), who in 2002 organized a church leaders conference in Oxford, UK, for the purpose of learning about the dangers of global warming by a panel of climate scientists. Four years later, this movement produced a landmark declaration, the Evangelical Climate Initiative. You can read its official statement, “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action.”

Of course, contrarians too have invested a lot of money and effort to refute what they consider a distortion of science by liberals – indeed, more than a religious question, this is about politics. For an example, see the Cornwall Alliance declaration.


Concluding words

At the end of these four blogs on faith and ecology, which I’ve called “Earth Warming, Faith Rising?”, some words of caution are in order. Despite the heartening momentum evident in all three circles considered in this piece (Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Evangelicals), there is still much apathy when it comes to “going green” in people’s personal lives and in the institutional ways of the church. As I see it, Rev. Sally Bingham’s grassroots, interfaith approach holds the most promise for actually educating us and getting us to shrink our carbon footprints (I confess my own foot-dragging in this area!). Also, I would add the Catholic emphasis on standing up for those most affected by pollution – it’s the poor and most often people of color who are the greatest victims of toxic landfills and industrial pollution. Sadly, Evangelicals at the moment are too divided to effect real change in the wider culture.

Some readers might have gathered from the last blog that Muslims worldwide are massively involved in environmental activism. That is not the case. Apart from the wrangling that has taken place in the halls of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, where political leaders barter back and forth and argue about who is going to dole out aid to the poorest countries most devastated by climate change; and apart from Indonesia where religious leaders have begun a grassroots campaign to curtail the abuses of big-business logging, mining and oil production – most Muslim countries have had to set economic development as their top priority (see Richard Foltz’ great article on “The Globalization of Muslim Environmentalism." Nevertheless, as I tried to show, there is definitely a movement afoot to put a sustainable environment on the agenda of Muslims worldwide.

Indeed, the earth is warming, and the faith of Muslims and Christians – whose teachings overlap so dramatically on God’s call for us to care for creation – is rising to meet this challenge, however slowly. Whatever our own faith or non-faith background, let each one of us do his or her part to protect and to share equitably the bountiful resources God’s earth holds for all of us. It is, after all, a “deeply moral issue” – a biblical and qur’anic imperative.

This piece was cut out of a chapter that was contributed to the volume coming out this year, Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History (co-edited by Simon A. Wood and David Herrington Watt, University of South Carolina Press). It was going to compare Muslim and Evangelical involvement in environmentalism, but in the end the editors took out the Christian side. Here it is. Its title is "Fundamentalism Diluted: From Enclave to Globalism in Muslim Ecological Discourse." Refer back to the blog series on fundamentalism to get the context of this short piece.

Books

  • Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love
    Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love

    This book is now published and available as an ebook. Unfortunately, with the current COVID-19 pandemic, the publisher cannot send out the actual physical books. Read a summary for each of the 6 chapters and buy it on the publisher's page. Here's the abstract, or précis:

     

    Read more...
  • Earth, Empire and Sacred Text
    Earth, Empire and Sacred Text

    This book seeks to construct a Muslim-Christian theological discourse on creation and humanity, which could help adherents of both faiths work together to preserve our planet, bring justice to its most needy inhabitants and contribute to peacebuilding in areas of conflict. For more information or to purchase (now also in paperback!)

    Read more...