John Thatamanil: To the Quran-Burning Church: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness
Islamophobia in America is gradually reaching epidemic proportions. The toll that such toxicity will exact on our core constitutional values is slowly becoming apparent. But few seem to realize that surrender to suspicion and fear also brings with it a heavy moral and spiritual price. When Christians (and sadly much of the hatred is being mobilized by churches) bear false witness against our neighbors and fail to live up to Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we abandon the constitutive practices of Christian life.
Christians violate basic religious commitments and obligations by fanning the flames of hatred and sowing the seeds of violence. The most dramatic example of Christians betraying their own values is the call by the Dove World Outreach Center for a Quran-burning day to mark the ninth anniversary of September 11. Some outreach!
Those who have the most to fear from this virulent disease are Muslims. But Sikhs and others likely to be mistaken for Muslims also have reason to worry. In the wake of 9/11, Indians and others who were “Middle-Eastern looking” were attacked. A Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi, whose turban made him a conspicuous target, was among those who were murdered. The toxic mix of racism, founded on the ignorant assumption that Muslims must come in some variety of brown, and widespread religious illiteracy make for a dangerous cocktail.
After noting the risks posed to Muslims and racialized others who appear to be of another religion, it must also be said that the carriers and transmitters of this disease are vulnerable to moral corruption and religious malpractice.
Christian partisans seem to forget that the Ten Commandments, which many love to post in public but few seem to read in private, prohibit bearing false witness against neighbors (Exodus 20:16). To malign a global religious community, to caricature the Prophet Muhammad, to insult and even burn the scriptures of another faith — such actions manifestly violate a core ethical mandate that is supposed to order Christian life.
To tell untruths about the traditions of our neighbors is an exercise in bearing false witness. Ignorance is no excuse. Christians should realize that they are sure to misrepresent the most cherished convictions of coworkers and neighbors if they elect to abide in ignorance. When Christians refuse to engage in the patient truth-seeking study of other traditions, they fail to perform the work that love requires. By remaining in ignorance, they leave themselves prone to easy manipulation by unscrupulous politicians who spread misinformation and foment fearmongering.
Christians who do not know much about their neighbors’ traditions place themselves in a position of moral vulnerability. When we speak about traditions we do not know, we are sure to get it wrong. And when that speech is driven by anxiety and apprehension, it is a safe bet that we shall bear false witness. In so doing, Christians compromise their own spiritual lives.
Adopting a posture of truth-telling and love does not mean that Christians are bound to uncritical silence about other religious traditions. Just as Christians should expect to be called out when they engage in racist behavior that is sanctified by appeal to religious rhetoric — as in the case of Christian arguments on behalf of racism, slavery and apartheid — so it is possible to speak in loving criticism about what seems awry in the traditions of others. Truth spoken in love is a far cry from slanderous speech. The former can be a part of a deep interreligious friendship; the latter violates trust and ruptures relationship.
But the labor of judgment is a precarious business. It must be remembered, after all, that the KKK, Christian militia members like Timothy McVeigh and abortion clinic bombers are all Christian terrorists. It is worth asking why this conjunction of terms is never seen in the press.
Few expect every church to apologize for these extremists. Would it be fair for our Muslim brothers and sisters to ask why American Christians have not collectively and forcefully denounced these extremists or the still very recent systematic brutalizing of black bodies under Christian slavery, slavery that was far from an isolated exception but was instead a national norm sustained by appeal to the Bible? A microscopic minority of Muslims perpetrates acts of terror, and yet all Muslims are held to blame. Slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and lynching were part of the very fabric of American life. They were condoned and even endorsed by American Bible-believing Christians. The racist legacy of these past wrongs still persists. Many American Christians find it easy to tarnish Muslims in general but have yet to come to terms with America’s Original Sin!
My point is that no religious tradition is innocent of grievous, even calamitous moral harm. The weighty work of repentance, redress and repair falls upon all traditions alike.
Faced with this sobering truth, Christians in particular must return to the core guiding principles of faithful living. Of these principles, none is more central and precious than Jesus’ reiteration of the ancient commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31).
That calling to love is irreparably harmed when the degraded culture of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib spills out into American life at large. When Christian churches hold Quran-burning days and when rally organizers urge protesters to bring dogs because Muslims hate dogs, we are not far from the Abu Ghraibification of American life. When practices that mimic torture spill out into the country at large, civic life is corrupted and the Christian calling to Christ-like living is eviscerated. When paranoia strikes deep, we risk losing not only our country but indeed our very souls.