by Elias Ghazal
Islamophobia is on the rise. Over the last decade, hate crimes against Muslims have increased at an alarming rate. That is, more and more Muslims around the world are being targeted simply for identifying with Islam. This is not referring to Muslims that are complicit in terrorist activities. The harassments in question are those against Muslim bystanders who more often than not are innocent spectators who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
There are mixed attitudes towards Muslims amidst this wave of anti-Islam. On one side, there are people who only speak horror stories about Muslims and refuse to acknowledge diversity or any good in Islam. To them, Muslims are not true Muslims until they are pure evildoers. On the other side, there are people who deny that faith has any link to violence committed in the name of Islam. These people will go to great lengths to show that context provides the ultimate explanation. Faced with the same situation, they reason, a Muslim will behave the same as a non-Muslim. I believe both of these positions are simplistic and damaging to Christian-Muslim relations.
What I find most concerning though is the attitude of some Gospel believing Christians. They believe that they are called to love everybody, but they are perturbed by the violence committed by some Muslim groups, especially against other Christians. They want to love their Muslim neighbors, but they find it difficult to do so in the age of ISIS. They imagine behind every Muslim an intolerant combatant that wants to force his will on them. They want to love their Muslim neighbors, but they stumble over what [they think] their neighbors believe. Effectively, they do not see a person. They see a religion; a defective religion. And to reconcile between their attitude and their faith, they claim to love the sinner, but hate the sin.
That statement – “love the sinner, but hate the sin” – has become a Christian cliché. In some circles, it is erroneously invoked as uttered by God. At the face of it, the message is virtuous. It means love people, but do not tolerate their sin, just as God does not. No disagreement there. However, I have witnessed that statement being hurled around with different connotations. The ulterior meaning goes something along the lines of: love the sinner, but when you find it difficult to do so, it is because of their sin, which makes them unbearable. Do not let them off easily! Tell them how ugly their sin is, and how much you, just like God, hate it. The idea buried there is that unless sinners repent and come clean, we cannot love them.
Notwithstanding what people really mean, I find applying the principle of “love the sinner, but hate the sin” to be generally problematic. As sinners being regenerated, our love is limited. We cannot intuitively disconnect sin from the sinner. We do not always love sinners despite their sins. Only God is capable of perfectly untangling sin from the sinner, because He is the only one without sin. Only God cannot be confounded by sin, because He is the only one in a position to judge sin. Thus, only God can love the sinner but hate the sin, and he does so consistently and resolutely. We should refrain from turning a truth about God into a descriptive claim about us.
When it comes to applying the “love the sinner, but hate the sin” principle to Islam, I think it is dangerous to parade behind the “love Muslims, but hate Islam” banner. I do not think we can isolate people from their chosen identity, because people do not generally do that to themselves. Our identities constitute who we are in complex and untraceable ways. They inform our decisions and guide our actions. Accordingly, your Muslim neighbors’ faith makes them who they are. It frames their behavior. You do not have to love their worldview, but if you hate it, I think you jeopardize loving them genuinely.
While Christians are called and expected to love everyone, including their enemies, they can only do so by God’s grace and by looking beyond people’s chosen identities, not by sifting through them. They view people from God’s perspective, as human beings created in the image of God, and who need saving from their sins. That is the only inalienable identity we all share, and the basis on which we should approach others.
Furthermore, it is confusing to equate sin to a system of thoughts or beliefs. For instance, it is meaningless to describe capitalism or belief in extraterrestrial life as sin. Sin is the act of disobeying God’s will. Thoughts and beliefs are ideational constructs. They become sinful when they are adopted and put to practice in a manner that violate God’s will. Still, God does not judge sinful thoughts abstractly. He judges people who, willingly or not, commit sin by engaging in these rebellious thoughts and beliefs. Put differently, God does not judge murder or idolatry, but murderers and idolaters. The point I want to make here is that it is unhelpful to speak of Islam as sin, because that packages Islam as an object of God’s wrath, while God’s wrath is declared “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (and women) who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). In other words, sinful people are the subject of God’s wrath, regardless which value-system they subscribe to. By targeting Islam and insisting that it is sin, which as I explained is irrational, we somehow insinuate that Muslims are extra sinful. As a result, we indirectly excuse some hatred towards them, or at least justify not loving them wholeheartedly. To be clear, we are all equally sinful, and we all desperately need redemption. If we discriminate against Muslims because we think their sins are more egregious than ours, we are guilty of hypocrisy and self-righteousness.
I find some similarity between the attitude of Christians who esteem the mantra of “love Muslims, but hate Islam” and the attitude of Jesus’ Jewish disciples towards Samaritans. Samaritans were Israelites that had mixed with Gentiles. They borrowed a great deal from the Pentateuch and Jewish traditions, but that only earned them animosity, not favor, from Jews. In the eyes of the Jews, Samaritans were impure and they should be avoided (John 4:9). Furthermore, the disciples reserved an extra dosage of hatred towards them. When a Samaritan village refused to welcome Jesus during his travel to Jerusalem, the disciples were furious that their master was rejected, and asked Jesus for permission to request fire to descend from heaven and annihilate it (Luke 9:51-55). That seems superfluous considering that the village cannot be seen to have committed a crime that warrants such a judgement. That Samaritan village was not exceptionally reprehensible when you consider by contrast Jesus’ message of woe to the unrepentant cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum (Luke 10:13-15). Yet, it is not clear that the disciples harbored any indignation towards any of those cities. I suspect that the disciples’ verdict on the Samaritan village was motivated by hate, not by any sense of righteousness or justice.
Unsurprisingly, Jesus’ response to his disciples is sobering and instructive. While his society antagonized Samaritans, Jesus rebuked his disciples for contemplating their destruction. He told his disciples, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of” (Luke 9:55 NASB). The disciples were most probably familiar with stories about the prophet Elijah and how he brought down consuming fire from heaven on several occasions in Samaria (1 Kings 18:38, 2 Kings 1:10-12). They surely would have been reminded of his valor following his appearance on the mount of transfiguration shortly before they approached the Samaritan village (Luke 9:30-31). Elijah was one of the great prophets in Israel, and it seems that the disciples wanted to emulate him. Jesus, however, was not impressed by their false zeal and self-righteousness. He opposed them by questioning their motives. Their desires were stirred by a foreign spirit, not the spirit that indwelt Jesus. It stands to reason that the disciples were blameworthy because they premeditated the extermination of a group of Samaritans just because they were Samaritans.
The attitude of Jesus towards Samaritans provides the ultimate model for how to deal with the religious other. First, Jesus did not make gross generalizations about Samaritans (e.g. they are all evildoers). In fact, when he wanted to explain the second greatest commandment, love your neighbour as yourself, he told a story and made a Samaritan its hero (Luke 10:25-37). Second, Jesus showed them mercy and did not doubt their intentions or motives just because they were Samaritans. When ten lepers cried out to him for mercy, he cleansed them all without discrimination. Interestingly, the only one that was grateful was a Samaritan, and Jesus commended him for his faith (Luke 17:11-19). Third, he did not avoid Samaritans. Rather, he travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem passing through Samaria, unlike most Jews who took the longer, indirect route east of the River Jordan. He even spent days on end in their villages (John 4:41). Fourth, Jesus did not compromise on the truth. In his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, he did not waiver about the source of salvation (John 4:22). At the same time, we do not see him ‘destroying’ her faith-system. Instead, he gracefully spoke the truth to her about acceptable worship and the Messiah. His approach was so gentle and caring, the woman felt compelled to tell her family and friends to listen to Jesus, and many ended up believing that he is the Saviour of the world!
May God purge our hearts from bigotry, and help us interact with our Muslim neighbours as Jesus modelled.
Of course it probably begins with us hating the sin that persists in our own lives. As was so eloquently put at last year’s Middle East Consultation “There is no difference” – as Paul points out in Romans 1-2. When we recognize that our own sin is no less than that of others it empowers us to come in humility to our Muslim neighbours and friends with nothing in our hands other than the message of God’s love and holiness found in Jesus.