The Sikh temple massacre, Islamophobia and Samaritans

Cross-posted from As of Yet Untitled

It’s been less than 24 hours sine the tragic shooting this Sunday in Wisconsin. We grieve for all the victims, their family and their communities. The LA Times is reporting that the gunman had tattoos and biographical details which lead officials to conclude he had a “political agenda”. While we don’t know for sure what that political agenda is, the attack does fit a pattern that in which Sikhs have been mistaken for Muslims in attacks by Islamophobic extremists since the 9/11 attacks.

This is another opportunity for Christians in the US to reflect on our response to the ugly Islamophobia that bubbles just beneath the surface and spills out in attacks against all people that appear Middle Eastern.

There would plenty of examples I could cite, but the prominent Christian leader Franklin Graham exemplifies this anti-Muslim trend. From 2002 through 2011, Graham has consistently made comments that stoke fear and paranoia towards Muslims in the US, saying that Islam “preaches violence” (2002) and is “evil” (2009). Last year he offered this:

“The Muslim Brotherhood is very strong and active in our country. It’s infiltrated every level of our government. Right now we have many of these people that are advising the US military and State Department on how to respond in the Middle East, and it’s like asking a fox, like a farmer asking a fox, “How do I protect my henhouse from foxes?” We’ve brought in Muslims to tell us how to make policy toward Muslim countries. And many of these people we’ve brought in, I’m afraid, are under the Muslim Brotherhood.”

(all quotes from Franklin Graham and Samaritan’s Purse, Sheila Musaji)

Its no accident that these lines could just as easily been from Joe McCarthy, with communists substituted for Muslims. When these kind of statements are made by mainstream leaders, they stretch the acceptable discourse deep into the hate zone, which becomes a jumping off point for Christian extremists. While Graham surely would not advocate violence like what happened today, his rhetoric nurtures the culture that feeds it. After all, if war against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan is such a great thing (according to Graham), why not at home?

In 2006, when Franklin Graham spoke in Winnipeg, Mennonites publicly debated whether to support his presence, but because of his militarism, not his Islamophobia. Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba director Peter Rempel actually cited his fear of Muslim attacks on Mennonite mission workers as a reason for Mennonites not to support him. “I’m thinking about the safety of our workers and Mennonites in other countries,” he said (see Mennonite Weekly Review, April 17, 2006)

This is an area where I have some person experience. On March 10, 2006, my CPT colleague my colleague Tom Fox killed by men who claimed to be Muslim extremists. I won’t deny that Rempel’s logic of tribal safety (whether it be CPTers or Mennonites) is compelling. But in the example of Jesus’s relationships to Samaritans we find a different model for why and how to challenge Islamophobia.

Jesus and the Samaritans

By the time of Jesus, the Jews had loathed the Samaritans (and visa versa) for several centuries―at least since the return of the Judeans exiled to Babylon. The apocryphal Wisdom of Ben Sirach 50:25-26, written around 200 B.C. notes, “There are two nations that my soul detests, and the third is not a nation at all: the inhabitants of Mount Seir, and the Philistines, and the stupid people living at Shechem [i.e. Samaritans.]”

Similarly the Mishna, the first major edited version of Jewish oral tradition (ca. 200 CE) declares: “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like one who eats the flesh of swine (Mishna Shebiith 8:10.)” The Samaritans were publicly cursed in the synagogues; and a petition was daily offered up praying God that the Samaritans might not be partakers of eternal life.

It’s likely that the feelings went both ways. In Antiquities 18.30, Josephus tells of a time passover feast in Jerusalem nine years after the birth of Jesus. The gates of the temple in were open past mid night as was the custom. A group of Samaritans snuck in through the gates and scattered human bones throughout the temple. The Jews were outraged at this act of inflammatory and deliberate desecration and increased security.

What would it have been like for Jesus’ listeners to hear his parable of the Good Samaritan with the story of the temple desecration by the Samaritans fresh in their memory? When Jesus told his listeners, ‘Go and do like the Samaritan,’ who had lavished extravagant compassion upon the wounded man, what fears came up for them?

But even among Jesus’ disciples, the hate for Samaritans was strong. In Luke 9:54, James and John ask Jesus to “call fire down from heaven to destroy” a Samaritan village that didn’t welcome them in for the night. But the fact that Jesus and the disciples even stopped at a Samaritan village suggests that Samaritans were part of the Jesus movement. We can only imagine that after Samaritan women at the well and her village followed Jesus, many others joined in.

It’s not enough just to talk about loving Muslims and opposing Islamaphobia, we need to consider what it looks like to live out Jesus’ radical hospitality in our lives. In the last year Christian Peacemaker Teams has begun welcoming Muslims into our teams. This was an attempt to respond to the example of radical hospitality that we see in Jesus. How can each of our communities welcome the people who we are taught to fear most?

Post Script: I would be deeply remiss if I did not mention the witness of Al Geiser as an example of Christ-like risk taking for peace. Geiser, his Afghan business partner, Al Shukur and their employee were shot and killed on July 22, 2012. Al and his wife Gladys continued working in Afghanistan even after Geiser and his business partner, Shukur were kidnapped in 2008 and then rescued months later.

Having experienced the impact of the 2005-2006 kidnapping on CPT as a community, I am in awe of the strength and commitment of the Geisers and Al Shukur. Their commitment to working for peace together in the face of incredible risk is a testimony to all of us.

Thanks to Al’s nephew Duane Steiner for reminding me of the Geiser’s story here in the comments.

Comments (7)

  1. Duane Steiner

    Below are links about another recent peaceful Anabaptist martyr. He loved the Afghan people and his goal was not to convert or change but to live amongst the people and help them. He risked all and was driven by a beat of a different drum. Those who say they follow Jesus should emulate his risk taking, his love the local people and his passion. I would have loved to have a conversation with my uncle about the polarization between Christians and Muslims that you speak about.

    Duane Steiner

  2. TimN (Post author)

    Thanks, Duane. I read the news of Al Geiser’s death last week with great sadness last. To survive a kidnapping, as he did, and then to choose to stay and continue working is truly a remarkable sign of his love for the Afghan people and his commitment to following the way of Jesus.

    My thoughts are with you and the rest of your extended family.

  3. TimN (Post author)

    Duane, I went ahead and added a post-script about your uncle here and on my post on The Mennonite.

  4. Joel Miller

    Thanks for the thoughts Tim. Am pondering the irony of Franklin Graham’s organization being called SAMARITAN’S Purse.

  5. TimN (Post author)

    Thanks, Joel. Somehow I managed to entirely miss that one. Wow.

  6. Tim B

    Sadly, Tim, I think most American’s first experience with Islam was on 9/11. Should it be any wonder then that their view of Islam is one of fear,? And while Franklin Graham is an evangelical leader we should be glad he doesn’t carry nearly the weight his father did. I am mighty saddened by the attitude of some christians towards muslims, especially since we have much in common; a deep devotion to God, head coverings, daily prayers, etc. I don’t believe Islam is the true religion, but I’m glad we live in a country where we should all be able to practice our religion.

  7. David Hovde

    Great article, Tim! After living in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq for the summer, receiving hospitality from Muslim people, I am very encouraged to read an article like this. – David Hovde

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