"Fear not!" That's how God's heavenly messengers greet us when they come to earth. "Do not be afraid, but have faith" was one of Jesus' constant refrains. And John told Christians to be known by our love for others that drives out all fear. Yet in America, fear now dominates our news, drives our politics, and is infecting our communities.
If ever there was a time when we needed the witness of Christian love that drives out fear, it is now! And that is why I have been so encouraged by a two-year conversation evangelical pastors in the South have been having about the role the Church must play in addressing growing fears of American Muslims — fears that have fueled hate, division, and worse in our communities.
A new dialogue tool just released by the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good (NEP), "A Survey of Religious and Community Attitudes Toward Muslims" was created out of those conversations. It shares the surprising results of how pastors are responding to bullying, bigotry, and other manifestations of the growing bias against Muslims in this country, without shying away from real differences that exist and concerns about terrorism. And it provides tools for pastors and churches to use in beginning their own conversations.
The "survey" grew out of a two-year focus group of sixteen conservative evangelical pastors in Knoxville, TN and Greensboro, NC who separately explored views and attitudes about Islam. What they discovered is that all it takes is one or two pastors or lay-leaders in conservative communities to begin the conversation on the need for better Muslim-Christian relations and the real personal harm that can result from anti-religious bias.
These aren't always easy conversations, but Christ never promised easy. And some of the most inspiring outcomes have grown from the pastors who showed the most courage.
In July 2015, after the Chattanooga slaying of five unarmed servicemen and wounding of others by a 24-year-old member of the local Muslim community, Bishop Tony Richie, Senior Pastor of New Harvest Church in Knoxville, TN told USA TODAY: "Now is the time for Tennesseans to seek solutions, rather than feeding into the fear." Shortly after the incident, Richie organized the Knoxville focus group and started to search for pastors to be participants.
While nearly all the pastors in the Tennessee focus group said they were not aware of any new hate-motivated incidents against Muslims in their community, they were aware and concerned that Tennessee was becoming a hotbed for action by members of the "alt-right" hate groups. Following the attack, they feared how Christians in their communities might be tempted down a similar path.
They discussed how hate crimes against Muslim Americans are at the highest level they've been since the 9/11 attack on the U.S. And in response, nearly all the participants (86%) said they felt compelled to speak out publicly to condemn incidents of bullying and other acts of hate in their communities. Three quarters of the pastors would go a step further by expressing this condemnation in a sermon, and nearly half went even further still by reaching out to their elected officials on how to better respond to local divisions.
Though bias against Muslims is most often justified by some abstract fear of terrorism, the real-life consequences for actual American Muslims in our communities, like bullying in schools and religious discrimination, can have deep and lasting impacts on our Muslim neighbors and their children. This is something that we should neither tolerate nor accept — not as evangelicals and not as Americans.
Interestingly, as pastors dialogued together, many who felt the media unfairly treats Christians began asking if perhaps the same simplistic narratives were often being applied to Muslims. It became clear that pastors did not find talk radio, TV, or politicians reliable sources for information about Muslims. Instead they said their primary source for seeking knowledge about Muslims should come from interaction with Muslims (56%). And they sought direction for how to do so from the Bible and Christian authors.
For example, one Baptist minister noted that he was having difficulty separating general concern about Islamic radicals from his Muslim neighbors. So he turned to Scripture, which led him to reach out to Muslim leaders in his community. From there came meaningful dialogue and relationships that continue to this day, both addressing unfounded fears and creating opportunities for additional ministry outreach.
Over the last few weeks, President Trump's third attempt at a "Muslim Travel Ban" was again ruled unconstitutional because of the anti-religious rhetoric used to justify it, and an ISIS-inspired terror attack occurred in NYC. The Church needs a way to discuss these challenges, and explore how the dangerous extremes born from fear and anti-religious bigotry on both sides do not reflect Christ's will for our world.
Our hope is that this new and powerful tool created by evangelicals will help seed more of those conversations and serve as a resource for pastors and churches seeking to extend the hand of Christian welcome to their Muslim neighbors.
A copy of "A Survey of Religious and Community Attitudes Toward Muslims" can be downloaded for use in congregations, study groups, and pastors associations here.