When Hitler came to power in Germany, a vocal minority of Christian leaders—the Confessing Church movement—opposed Nazism. Among the leaders of this movement, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the most notable. He died in prison after participating in a failed conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. In his prison writings, he disavowed Christian anti-Semitism and embraced the fact that Jesus Christ was a Jew. In doing so he broke with the historic anti-Semitism of Lutheranism and of Christianity in general which can be traced back to the early centuries of Christianity. For example, leaders like Archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom (mid-late 4th century), who is regarded as a saint, preached with hatred and vitriol against his Jewish neighbors, blaming them for killing Christ. His sermons incited mob violence against Jews. This kind of scapegoating of Jews is so entrenched in Christianity it can even be clearly seen in the Gospels themselves. In the Gospel of John Jews are called “children of the devil” and in the Gospel of Matthew Jewish bystanders at Jesus’ execution say, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt 27:25, NRSV). Since the Shoah (Holocaust), mainstream Christians, including Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians have fundamentally revised our views on Jews and Judaism; we’ve acknowledged Christianity’s historic anti-Semitism and no longer blame Jews for killing Christ or attempt to convert Jews to Christianity. Today, Christian leaders of conscience are called to take a vocal stand against Islamophobia. We are called to root Islamophobia out of our religion before it leads to another genocidal catastrophe.
As is the case with Christian anti-Semitism, Christian Islamophobia has deep roots. In the oldest Christian writings on Islam, St. John of Damascus’ Against Heresies (8th century CE), Muhammad is presented as a heretic inspired by the devil; Islam itself is categorized as a Christian heresy. Tragically, this has been the dominant Christian assessment of Muhammad and Islam up until the present day, with influential figures such as Dante, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther all making similarly inflammatory claims. In the 15th century, Nicholas of Cusa was distressed by the wars between Christians and Muslims and sought to unify the religions theologically. However, he did not succeed and instead ended up writing a diatribe refuting the Qur’an and again framing Muhammad as a devil-inspired heretic. The most notable counter-example to this rather dismal tradition of Christian polemic against Islam is St. Francis of Assisi. During the crusades of the 13th century, Francis was successful in dialoging with Sultan Malek al-Kamil of Egypt and negotiating a truce between Christian and Muslim fighters. The Sultan was not interested in negotiating with the Pope or any other leader, but only with Francis, whom he admired and trusted as a person of integrity, peace, and devotion to God. The Christian Right in the United States has not invented Islamophobia, they are merely continuing this hateful vein of the Christian tradition. From the beginning, Christians have reacted to Islam in a spirit of competition and mistrust. Instead of embracing and appreciating Islam as a sibling faith, Christians have tried to discredit Islam. Now, in the 21st century, it is high time for Christians to acknowledge how wrong we have been. Islam is the second-largest religion on the planet and is an integral part of human civilization as we know it. Islam is a beautiful, complex religion that supports human dignity, arts and sciences, spirituality, economic, environmental and racial justice, and so much more. As Christians today we are called to acknowledge the integrity of Islam and embrace Muslims as brothers and sisters in faith. And the key, I believe, to making this paradigm shift is choosing to see Muhammad differently, in light of our faith.
Just as Bonhoeffer embraced the fact that Jesus Christ was a Jew, thus identifying himself as a Christian with and for Jews, so too Christians today have the opportunity to identify ourselves with and for Muslims by positively identifying Jesus with Muhammad. The foundation of Christian Islamophobia (fear of Islam) is a rejection of Muhammad as a spirit of error; the foundation of Christian Islamophilia (love of Islam) is an embrace of Muhammad as a spirit of truth. Jesus, in the Gospel of John, predicts the coming of a future prophet he calls “the spirit of truth”:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12-15, NRSV)
Today as Christians we have the opportunity to embrace Muhammad, the Qur’an, and Islam in an expression of faith in Jesus. This kind of embrace would have major political implications and would radically alter the quality of Christian-Muslim relations. We have the chance now to acknowledge and let go of Christianity’s polemical reactions against Islam, and to seek a collaborative relationship with Muslims. This crucial adaptation of Christianity—choosing to see Muhammad as a “spirit of truth” whom Jesus said would guide us into all the truth—will allow Christianity and Islam to work together for peace, justice, and the healing of Earth; it will help put an end to the predisposition of Christians to mistrust and fear Muslims.
In the Qur’an, Jesus says, “‘O Children of Israel! Truly I am the Messenger of God unto you, confirming that which came before me in the Torah and bearing glad tidings of a Messenger to come after me whose name is Ahmad’” (61:6, The Study Quran). In this verse we have a vision of Jesus that affirms both Judaism and Islam; this is the vision of Jesus I believe that Christians are being called by God to adopt in the 21st century. Imagine a Christianity that could embrace the full Jewish-Christian-Muslim canon of sacred literature and engage in a free-flowing theological and ethical dialogue with Jewish and Muslim neighbors. Imagine a Christianity open to the transformation and healing this dialogue would bring to the whole Abrahamic family of faith. Yes, Christianity has made major mistakes in regards to both Judaism and Islam; our tradition is replete with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. But it is within our power to learn from our history and course-correct going forward. Our tradition’s first assessment of Muhammad has been a disaster and has fueled centuries of conflict between Christians and Muslims. But it is not too late to recognize Muhammad as the one Jesus promises he will send to us: “the spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf” (John 15:26b, NRSV). “You also are to testify,” Jesus says, “because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:27, NRSV). As faithful followers of Jesus, it is time for us to testify about the integrity of Muhammad and Islam, to testify that Jews and Muslims are our closest siblings in faith. This testimony can help set a new course for a century and a millennium of peace between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Follow Ian Mevorach on Twitter: www.twitter.com/IanMev