Learn from distortions

A service at the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge, where bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev attended Friday prayers. ROBERT F. BUKATY / Associated Press
A service at the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge, where bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev attended Friday prayers. ROBERT F. BUKATY / Associated Press
Posted: May 03, 2013

Some think I have a cushy job. After all, what could be easier than teaching the founding religion at a faith-based institution?

Actually, it's more complicated than that. Because I am an academic, my task is more rigorous than merely reviewing the ideals of our religion, and because I embrace the Christian virtues of truth, accuracy, and fairness, I must engage my students with the complete story of our faith. This includes Christianity's glorious chapters when it has made positive contributions to humanity, but also the darker episodes when our religion is linked to some of history's most violent and barbaric events.

My job would be easier if I didn't have to admit that Christianity was complicit in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that Christians gassed other Christians during the First World War, that the Holocaust happened in majority Christian countries, or that Christians attempted genocide against other Christians in Rwanda. It would be simpler to dismiss these events as having nothing to do with our faith, and to merely disown those who perpetrated these events because their actions were contrary to the ideals of Christianity.

However, such a denial or partial story-telling wouldn't be truthful. The fact is, many of those who participated in these atrocities considered themselves to be Christians, and many justified their actions with Christian language. To deny the evil that has been done by those who claim my faith would also prevent learning from our tragic past. How can Christians recover from our painful history if we quickly dismiss it as irrelevant?

So I engage students with the barbarity committed in the name of our faith. I warn them of the temptations to sacrifice the ideals of Christianity on the altars of self-interest. I remind them that only those who embrace our faith can ultimately improve the quality of its practice, and this can't be done if we fail to learn from those who distort our religion.

In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, I encourage my Muslim friends and neighbors to engage their religion and all those who claim it in similar ways. From my many Muslim friends and my experiences of living among devout Muslims, I have learned to respect Islam and its many noble gifts to the world. So, I amplify the multitude of Muslim voices declaring that terrorism is anti-Islamic. The world needs to hear that the ideals of Islam are peace, justice, and tolerance, and hopefully, one day soon we'll get the message and not allow a minority to form our impression of the majority.

Even so, I fear that Muslims miss opportunities to examine their faith as it is and to improve their public image when they so quickly dismiss violence in the name of Islam as an irrelevant evil. To be truthful and fair, acts of terror are committed by self-professed Muslims who justify their actions using Islamic sources.

Even though violent extremism is inconsistent with the ideals of Islam, a direct relationship exists in the minds of the perpetrators. Like all religious people, Muslims should be courageous, truthful, and humble enough to acknowledge that evil continues to be done in the name of all the world's religions, including their own. Like all religious people, Muslims should examine their faith in its real world context, and rather than merely disowning the terrorists, critically engage the conditions which cultivate terrorism. Just as I believe that only Christians can purge our religion of the stain of its darker episodes, so I believe that Muslims are the best placed to defuse violent extremism from within.

We may pretend that only good results from those who claim to follow our religions. However, we all know this isn't the case. We demonstrate the ideals of our religions best when we are humble and truthful enough to learn from their distortions.


George F. Pickens is a professor of theology and mission at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg. E-mail him at GPickens@messiah.edu.

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