Reading the news this week, we were sadly reminded of a dangerous tendency among Christians. According to the late Jesuit theologian Jacques Dupuis, SJ, Christians often draw comparisons between what is best in their tradition and the worst in other traditions. At a recent New Hampshire town hall meeting, someone stood and said that, “we have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one, you know he’s not even American.” Many politicians are condemning Donald Trump for letting this comment slide, and not coming to Barack Obama’s defense. After all, President Obama is a Christian. However, the issue goes deeper than what religion President Obama professes. Why is being called a Muslim considered an accusation or an insult, and why is being a Christian considered the proper response to such an “accusation?”
For those of us who are Christian, we need to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” Am I Christian because I was baptized? Am I Christian because I go to mass on Sunday? Am I Christian because I stand up and profess certain doctrines? Am I a Christian because that is what my parents raised me to be? Am I Christian because that is “safer” in the United States than being a Muslim or a Hindu or an atheist (according to a 2012 Gallup poll, 43% of Americans would refuse to vote for an atheist for president; 40% would not vote for a Muslim)?
While I am not discounting the importance of the sacraments and doctrines of Christianity, Christianity is not a passive assent to creeds and attendance at rituals. It is a lifestyle. As the late Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx defines it, Christianity is the decision to make Jesus Christ the center of one’s life. Jesus tells us, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:35).” We cannot just say we are Christians, we have to BE Christians each and every day, not just on Sunday or on an application that asks us to name our religion.
What does it mean to be Christian? In today’s world, it means refusing to stand by while others are demeaned and oppressed. It means recognizing God’s universal will for human salvation. This means, we cannot be content to just compare the best of Christianity with the worst in others. Jesus himself asks us, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye (Luke 6:41)?” Imagine if there were calls to get rid of “the Christian problem” because of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, or because of the Westboro Baptist Church, or the Ku Klux Klan.
God does not just work through Christians, God works through all human beings in a variety of cultures and religions. True faith means that we can learn about other religions and even from other religions all without losing our belief in the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ. If we close ourselves off to our Muslim brothers and sisters, it is not only them, but us Christians who miss out on the opportunity to form some pretty amazing relationships.
We have to guard against claiming Christian identity in a way that increases our own popularity or security, in a way that makes our lives easier, or in a way that increases our distance from those who are not Christian. After all, Jesus’ way of life, which we are called to imitate, eventually led him to the cross. If we are truly Christian, we must loudly protest against a society where being Christian affords a person certain privileges that cannot be enjoyed by Muslims or any other group (namely, the right to wear religious symbols openly, the ability to have a greater chance of being elected to public office, the ability to feel safer walking down the street). We must examine our own biases. Whenever Islam, or any other faith tradition, is demeaned or disrespected by another person or group of people, or unfairly stereotyped, we must stand up and say NO! It might make some people angry, it might even make some people not trust you, but hey, that’s not so different from the reaction Jesus often received during his earthly ministry.