Peace Catalyst likes to get people together and Ramadan is a great time to do that. Our Muslim friends are already gathering many evenings throughout Ramadan to break their fasts together. Sometimes they invite us into their space to share this meal with them. But sometimes, too, my Christian friends push back and resist accepting the invitation.
The mob surrounded the house as the couple hid behind a locked door. It was not strong enough to protect them. The bolts broke and the young couple was beaten because they had burned some paper with Arabic words that some thought came from the Qur’an. They were barely alive when they were then dragged to a brick kiln, where they were burned to death. The angel from Daniel’s fiery furnace did not appear to those gazing in, they did not emerge unharmed, but the injustice of this vigilante execution touched the hearts of Muslim men in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Do you remember that couple that was killed in Pakistan last year?” Younathan, my Christian Pakistani friend asked,
The look on my face said, “No.”
“They were a Christian couple. They were accused of blasphemy and a mob surrounded their house and killed them.”
Younathan went on. “Two Pakistani men at the mosque here in Louisville contacted me and wanted to set up a scholarship for the four children that were left behind. They asked if I could help them.” Younathan took the request to his father.
Seeking peace happens in-between the bombing campaigns, when things are out of the spotlight. Individuals see a need and address it. “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness,” according to James 3:18.
Simple right? God ordained? Right? But there is a problem. In many cases it is illegal. Due to our fear of terrorism, U.S. law says that “giving material assistance” to terrorists is a punishable offense. No one wants to see terrorists funded, but these laws are written too broadly. “Giving material assistance” can include giving a seminar on peaceful conflict resolution, giving a ride to someone to talk about peace, or sharing a cup of coffee.
“Can we just have 10 seconds of silence, please?” a Kurdish man asked.
It was our Kurdish Peace Feast. Three of his relatives had been killed by the ISIS group last week. He wanted us to honor their memory.
The feelings were raw in the room. Some were emotional and passionate.
“The US spent six million dollars for a tank that ISIS took from the Iraqi army and is now using against my people.”
Just days ago, this man had returned from a village caught between ISIS forces and the Yazidi people trapped on Mount Sinjar.
Most Saturday mornings Susan fixes a great breakfast. Friends arrive around 10. Sometimes as late as 10:30. Some are Iranian. Some are Palestinian, others Turkish, Pakistani, American and Yemeni. We always have halal food for our Muslim friends. Most weeks they pitch in. We have traditional eggs and pancakes mixed with dolma, samoosas, hummus and borek. Savory and sweet, somehow it all comes together over Turkish chai and American coffee. We were going to call it “Brunch and Share,” but we are friends, so most just call it breakfast. Fridays we send out a text message, “Are you coming to breakfast this week?” Six to ten usually show up.
“How did your week go?”
“Pretty good. Are you feeling better?”
The FBI agent was a sharply dressed young woman. I wondered why she was attending the Somali Peace Feast. Another friend who works with local internationals said this FBI agent had been a friend to the international community helping both the agency and the local police department be more sympathetic with the immagrant populations.
Love God? Got it.
Love others? Who!?
I assume that most people who read this are people of faith. That faith may be expressed in different ways, but I assume my readers love God and want to honor him. So I want to consider what does this “love others” mean?
Some have dismissively told me that they “love everyone.” So why even write this? Well, I was reading 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter.” It is used in many weddings to define true love. I suspect that if we consider the “other” in light of the love chapter, we may come up short.
Who the “other” is largely depends on your vantage point. If you lived in Ireland the “other” might be a Protestant or a Catholic. Democrats and Republicans in the United States have different definitions of the “other.” Jews, Christians and Muslims have all been termed the evil other by someone.
A problem with labels is that they allow us depersonalize “others.” It is much easier to despise a label rather than a schoolmate we know or a mother named Tabitha with two kids, Beth and Ryan. If I reduce you to an abstract group of generalizations, I don’t have to get to know you or respect you as an individual. I already know what you believe and where we disagree and that YOU are intransigent in your position. Jesus calls us to a radically different way of relating to the “other.”
When a religious scholar asked Jesus what was the most important law to obey, (Mk 12:28-ff) Jesus referenced the Jewish Shema (Dt6:4) and expands on its implications.
‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Scot McNight did a great job of unpacking these implications in his book titled, “The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others.”
When Jesus was asked to define the “neighbor” he pointed to the “Good Samaritan” as an example of how we should treat others. Samaritans were a minority that had been despised and isolated by the majority. Jesus however, routinely treated them with dignity. He prevented his disciples from calling fire from heaven to destroy the pesky Samaritans who refused to accept Jesus into their community. He spoke respectfully to the Samaritan woman at the well and even stayed with the Samaritans for a few days. I think Jesus might be giving us some guidance about how we treat the “other.”
A friend said that when the election is over we will have to live with each “other.” In my work, I see the Muslims and Christians define each “other” in very negative terms. I want to encourage you to follow the wisdom of Romans 12.
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
As we reject the inclination to let fear and rhetoric define another “other,” let us take seriously the words of Jesus that tell us to love even our enemies. Is this utopian? Perhaps, but it is what Jesus called us to do. Why not read 1 Corinthians 13 now and ask yourself if you truly love the “other.”
Last week I had the opportunity to speak with Umar Cheema. He is a Pakistani journalist who has suffered for his outspoken views against corruption and Islamic extremism. In 2004 a car ran over him leaving him bed-ridden for six months. In 2010 he was abducted and driven a hundred miles away from his home. He was left naked with his hair, mustache and eyebrows shaved off as an act of intimidation and shame. As he lay on the ground, not knowing where he was, he remembers an internal conversation. He considered leaving Pakistan. He considered changing his journalistic pursuits, but either option would give a victory to the intimidators. Some of his friends have warned him that he needs to stop speaking out, but Cheema sees this as a fight for the future of Pakistan. His silence would only empower those who oppress and hate. People must speak out.
He spoke of Malala Yousafzai (Malala Update) the young lady who was recently shot by the Taliban for demanding the right to attend school. At age 11 she started a blog that angered those who want to keep women subservient. At age 14 the fundamentalists found her on a bus and shot her in the head. As she fights for her life in Britain, protests against the Taliban’s brutality are erupting in Pakistan. Who says one young Muslim girl can’t make a difference? The price was very high, but the future depends on people overcoming their fears and speaking for freedom and justice. Cheema asked for prayers for her to recover and not to be intimidated into silence.
Roadblocks to Peace
As I spoke with Cheema, I sensed in him a similar spirit to my own. I told him about the work of Peace Catalyst and our attempt to get Christians and Muslims to genuinely hear one another. He asked, “How do you get the religious people to get beyond their…. ” His voice trailed off. This journalist was searching for the words to describe the roadblocks he had faced in his own country. Was it hatred? Was it convictions? Was it stubbornness? Whatever it was, it was preventing peace, and a lot of people are getting hurt by these roadblocks. We talked about the dynamics of being a minority population. Here in the USA, Muslims are a minority. Our Muslim friends are highly motivated to get along. Sometimes here, Christians, as the majority, do little to accommodate the opinions of the minority. The roles are reversed in Muslim majority countries where Christians struggle to be heard. I thought of Jesus’ words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I think things might improve substantially if we would live out that golden advice.
Modernists and Fundamentalists
Cheema is a “modernist.” He is a devout Muslim who looks to the Qur’an for principles to live by. This is different from the “fundamentalists” who interpret the Qur’an literally and want to see patterns of life restored to the way things were in 7th century Saudi Arabia. A simple way to think of the differences can be found in the application “cut off the hand of a thief” found in Sura 5:38 of the Qur’an. Fundamentalists advocate cutting off hands of thieves because that is what the Qur’an literally says. The modernist would say that thieves need to be held accountable, but amputations are outdated. Amputation was simply the method of the Arabic culture at the time of Muhammad, to mark and shame a thief. If a man with one hand walked in a shop, the workers would know to watch the remaining hand carefully. Today, we have police and justice systems that deal with such things in more culturally appropriate ways. It is my opinion that the world would be a saner place if the modernists won these arguments.
Quotes of Cheema
Here are some observations(opinions) of Cheema:
As a result of the effectiveness of modern technology he said, “People used to go to the police with their problems, now they go to the media.”
“The British tried to subdue militant resistance with six failed expeditions into the region. We will not win the battle against extremists with the military. We must invest in economic development and education.”
“Ignorance breeds suspicion. Suspicion breeds hatred.”
On freedom of speech, he choked just a little saying “Americans don’t realize how blessed they are to be able to say what they think.” He said, “Offensive ideas [ones that challenge the status quo] are the ones that need this protection. These ideas are what bring needed change.”
On the future of Pakistan Cheema was optimistic, “The people sitting in government are being convicted while they still serve. We have an active judicial. This never happened in the past.”
On the future of Pakistan and terrorism, Cheema was concerned. “The United States has no plan for Pakistan beyond pulling out [of Afghanistan] in 2014.”
In 2008, Cheema won the Daniel Pearl Journalism Fellowship from the New York Times. In 2011, he won the International Press Freedom Award and the Tully Center Free Speech Award from Syracuse University. After he left us, I think he was off to get another award.
His father wants him to stop speaking out, but Cheema is fighting for the future of Pakistan and the hearts of Muslims everywhere, so he endures the threatening phones calls, being followed in his car, and the threat of death in an area not known for freedom of speech. We frequently hear, “Why don’t Muslims speak out?” Would you in an environment like this? We are indeed blessed to live in a land where we can speak freely. We can “repay” part of our debt to society by standing with people like Umar Cheema and his young counterpart Malala Yousafzai, who are trying to gain these freedoms for their people. Keep them in your prayers. Together, we can make a difference.
Cheema came to Louisville to update and challenge the Pakistani community. Click here for stories by Umar Cheema.