Let's debate the Gospel
Former Arkansas governor and 2012 presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee found himself in hot water this week after he called Islam the "antithesis of the gospel of Christ" and said that churches that share worship space with Muslims are caving to a religion "that says that Jesus Christ and all the people that follow him are a bunch of infidels who should be essentially obliterated."
In an analysis of how Islam may shape campaign politics, Politico's Bryon Tau wrote: "As Republican candidates define their national security stands in the 2012 elections, conservative discomfort with Islam in America will be a feature of the debate."
Should Islam be debated on the campaign trail? Are religious issues in danger of being exploited?
Back in the late 1980s, I was managing a homeless shelter for a Catholic religious order in the South Bronx. The highlight of the week was our Sunday dinner and the priest who founded the shelter would come and say mass. For mass one Sunday, the priest decided to address the topic of Muhammad. The subject was not Muhammad as the antithesis of Jesus, nor Muslims as enemies. Instead, the subject was Muhammad as guided by the Holy Spirit and Muslims as friends. The priest pointed to aspects of Islam's five pillars--particularly fasting (sawm), prayer (salat), and almsgiving (zakat)--as practices that all Christians could admire. That the priest was politically and theologically quite conservative made his reflections surprising but all the more welcome--especially since I had just returned from Pakistan and had thought through many of these issues in dialogue with my Muslim friends.
I suppose such a priest would not be allowed to lead even a prayer service in a rented church, if former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee were making decisions. Huckabee's comments referring to Islam as the "anti-thesis of the gospel of Christ" are grotesque in the most basic and literal sense of being distorted. Indeed, the former Arkansas governor not only distorts Islam, but Christianity itself.
Like all distortions, Huckabee's comments can be connected to something that is real and true: Christians and Muslims do tell different stories about Jesus. The first time I confronted the awkwardness of this was during tea-time at a hotel in Gilgit, Pakistan. There I was earnestly, and politely, asked why I did not accept Muhammad as a prophet when Muslims accepted Jesus as a prophet.
I explained that for me Jesus was God, not simply a prophet. As for Muhammad, I offered that I did indeed respect much about him, although I did not understand him in the same way Muslims did. The discussion morphed into a serious debate about whether Christian conceptions of God as "triune" violate the unity (tawhid) of God. After awhile, we all resolved to agree to disagree and attention turned to my daily tutorial in the local language, Burushaski.
No harsh words were exchanged--we all remained friends in spite of our differences in matters of theology. In fact, we found more than enough commonality for us to discuss our differences in an intelligible way. After all, Christians are "People of the Book" according the Qur'an and the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate affirmed the kinship of Abrahamic traditions.
Of course, in specific social and political contexts, the fact that Muslims and Christians talk differently about Jesus can have more contentious outcomes. For example, Gabriel Said Reynolds has recently called attention to an Iranian film of the life of Jesus that was banned in Lebanon after pressure from the Christian community.
It is certainly true that Muslims and Christians have a history of conflict. But just as we might point to the poor treatment of Christians in Muslim nations such as Pakistan, we also should point to the poor treatment of Muslims in nations like France, Germany, or, most painfully, in the Balkans. Instead of saying Islam and Christianity are antitheses, we might very well say that both traditions mirror each other in their complex, and often conflicted, relationship with issues of authority, power, and identity.
The only way Huckabee's point makes any sense is if we assume some essential core to both Christianity and Islam. While the former governor and I would both call ourselves "Christian," Evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have quite different theological perspectives and devotional practices. And so, although we both believe in a "core" of Christianity, we might very well disagree about what should be included in, or excluded from, that Christian core.
The same observation applies to Muslims and Islam. Looking at Islam, both as it is thought out and as it is lived, we find innumerable variations. To say that Islam is essentially opposed to "the gospel of Christ" is to simplify the diversity of the Islamic tradition and Muslim experience in the service of an equally simplified understanding of Christianity and Christian experience.
It is in his unreflective construal of the Gospel where I find the former Governor's comments especially disturbing. One understanding of the story of Jesus sees the crucifixion as unmasking what Rene Girard has called the "scapegoat mechanism" that seeks to reestablish social order through persecution. If the story of Jesus is construed in this way, Christians cannot avail themselves of narrative strategies in which they seek to vindicate themselves at the expense of another group of people. Of course, many Christians have understood the story of Jesus precisely as authorization to devalue and attack those whom they consider to be "other."
Huckabee seems to be unconcerned about such issues. This leads me to believe that his comments are less about the Gospel than about accruing political benefit from "making Muslims the enemy," to cite the subtitle of Peter Gottschalk's perceptive book on Islamophobia in the media.
Before addressing the question of Islam, maybe the former governor would benefit from revisiting the Gospel of Christ and considering what kind of Jesus he believes in. Maybe then the GOP can have a much needed debate on the nature of Christianity.
Posted by: ThomasBaum | February 26, 2011 12:46 PM
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Posted by: cecilg | February 25, 2011 8:37 AM
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Posted by: WmarkW | February 24, 2011 8:48 PM
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