In his 1821 autobiography, Thomas Jefferson reflected upon one of the crowning achievements of his career, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:
“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that it should read, ‘a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;’ the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
Jefferson makes it clear that he understands religious freedom to include a variety of religions and not just Christian sects. The statute he would write for Virginia would be the foundation for the new American nation’s understanding of religious liberty. Despite Jefferson’s desire to include Islam as an equal religion in the United States, Muslims have faced great resistance for centuries. The tension between Christians and Muslims is a long-enduring struggle, but the two religions have not always been at odds with each other.
As Islam was growing throughout the Middle East, there was a section of the Christian church that was being forgotten by the West, called the Church of the East. These Nestorian believers were able to coexist with Muslims and also expand into new areas as far as India and China. Philip Jenkins reflects on the relationship between the Church of the East and Islam:
“…Eastern Christians played such a critical role in building Muslim politics and culture…[they] dominated the cultural and intellectual life of what was only slowly becoming the ‘Muslim world,’ and this cultural strength starkly challenges standard assumptions about the relationship between the two faiths.”
It was not until the Medieval era that Christianity and Islam truly began to have conflict, largely as a result of the crusades led by the Western church. This is not to say that the two religions always lived in harmony, but it was exacerbated as a result of the crusades. As Europe was falling apart, the Middle East became a bastion of academia, as a result of the cooperative relationship between Christians and Muslims. Jenkins helps us understand that the two religions have not always had a tense past, thus reminding us that the future can also have peace.
The fear of Muslims grew in the United States in the 20th century for a variety of reasons. Mark Stein’s book American Panic highlights the history of this issue in addition to several other people groups that Americans have feared. He cites a specific example of how the fear of Muslims was growing in the last century:
“Ahmed Hassan’s application for citizenship was rejected in 1942 when Judge Arthur Tuttle invoked both race and religion in his ruling: ‘Apart from the dark skin of the Arabs, it is well known that they are part of the Mohamedan world and that a wide gulf separates their culture from that of the predominately Christian peoples of Europe…”
Western and Middle Eastern cultures are different, but we need to embrace our differences rather than fearing them. The norm has often been to flee that which we do not understand. However, we need to take risks and embrace that which we do not know because it is part of being a follower of Jesus. The parable of the Good Samaritan is often used to discuss this topic—to the extent of being overused at times. However, I had to ponder this postulation from Donald Kraybill when I came across it:
“Agape is risky. The whole scene of this story might have been a frame-up. Perhaps the robbers were hiding nearby waiting to pounce on anyone who offered help. By walking with the victim instead of riding, the Samaritan made himself vulnerable to more attacks after the rescue. Nevertheless, this good enemy takes a risk for the same of the victim.”
One of the most powerful things about Jesus’ teaching style was not just the things he said, but rather the things he did not say. Jesus does not talk about the risks taken by the Samaritan, but the audience might have been aware of the kinds of risks that were not mentioned. Reading this story two millennia later, we lose much of the effect and context.
The most significant challenge Americans face in regards to Islam is that we have been quick to judge an entire religion in response to acts carried out by extremists. I have discussed—at length—the issue of whether or not Islam is any more violent than Christianity and Judaism. While I am not an expert on Qur’anic studies, it appears to me that the violence in the Qur’an is not much different than the violence found in the Old Testament/Tanakh. I cannot defend the violent language in the Qur’an, but I also have a difficult time defending the violence found in my own Scriptures. David W. Shenk provides a helpful insight into understanding the Qur’anic passages used by militants to support their perspectives:
“The portions of the Qur’an condoning violence that the jihadists look to for divine support were mostly proclaimed in Medina after Muhammad had acquired political and military power. They are proclamations denouncing those who take land or property from Muslims. It is noteworthy that these ‘sword’ verses are proclaimed as a response to provocation or threats to the umma [the global Islamic community.]”
The issue comes down to hermeneutics—the way in which one interprets his or her holy scriptures. There are extremists in all religions who read their respective holy texts as something different than the original intent of the scripture. Currently, there is a problem in the world where terrorists are using these kinds of Qur’anic passages as a way to recruit new participants. However, the vast majority of Christians, Jews, and Muslims all espouse a peaceful pursuit of their respective religions. We have to be careful to not let a few people define an entire religion. N.T. Wright highlights the issue of generalizing entire people groups into a dichotomy of good and evil:
“…the astonishing naïveté which decreed that America as a whole was a pure, innocent victim, so that the world could be neatly divided up into evil people (particularly Arabs) and good people (particularly Americans and Israelis), with the latter having a responsibility to punish the former…”
We must find a way for all religions to coexist. I am unashamedly committed to advancing the gospel to all people, meaning that I hope all people might come to follow Jesus. However, we cannot share the gospel with the world through coercion. Centuries of intermingling church and state have proven that this yields negative results. The challenge we face today is that church and state need to find a way to interact in regards to this issue, but the two cannot intersect each other. The church has a responsibility to love and embrace all. The state has a responsibility to carry out its own functions, without discriminating against any particular religion. Referencing the complexities of this issue, Jenkins warns:
“While we can imagine any number of possible futures, a worst-case scenario would include a wave of religious conflicts reminiscent of the Middle Ages, a new age of Christian crusades and Muslim jihads. In responding to this prospect, we need at a minimum to make sure that our political leaders and diplomats pay quite as much attention to religions and to sectarian frontiers as they ever have to the distribution of oilfields.”
I do not know quite how to end this article. I do not have any sort of clever action steps to help America be less fearful of Muslims. Instead, I am simply trying to start dialogue that helps us address these issues. Part of leading change means talking about difficult issues. If we want to see our world changed and become more peace-filled, we have to be vulnerable and open about these difficult issues. Is it unrealistic for me to desire the kind of harmonious relationship that existed in the 9th century in the Middle East? Perhaps it is. But if we do not have a goal in place, we can never achieve anything. I encourage you to join me in searching for this harmony. Let us talk about these issues with each other, government leaders, and most importantly with our Muslim neighbors.
 “Amendment I (Religion): Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography.” Amendment I (Religion): Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography. Accessed February 07, 2017. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendI_religions45.html.
 Jenkins, Philip. The lost history of Christianity: the thousand-year golden age of the church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia- and how it died. New York: HarperOne, 2008, p. 18.
 Stein, Mark. American panic: a history of who scares us and why. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p. 227.
 Kraybill, Donald B. Upside-down Kingdom. Herald Press, 2003, p. 175.
 Shenk, David W. Christian, Muslim, friend: twelve paths to real relationship. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2014, 143–144.
 Wright, N. T. Surprised by scripture: engaging contemporary issues. New York: HarperOne, 2014, pp. 113–114.
 Jenkins, Philip. The next Christendom: the coming of global Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 18.