How Does Our Opinion of Islam Affect Our Mission?
by Thandazani Mhlanga | 17 December 2020 |
There is much power in words. A gently whispered “I love you” at a time of emotional turmoil has the ability to whisk you away to a place of joy. But the opposite is also true: words can also take us to a place of emotional chaos.
I am cautiously curious to know what kind of thoughts and emotions would be stirred up amongst Christians when they hear the Arabic phrase, “Allahu akbar,” for instance. It means “God is great,” but I’m sure that for most people, their emotional reaction would be the result of the information they have been relentlessly bombarded with, with or without their consent.
How we see Islam
A 2011 Pew Research on Muslim-Western tensions found that many Westerners’ “attribute negative characteristics, particularly violence and fanaticism, to Muslims.” In the U.S, 70% of the research participants believed that some religions tend to be more violent than others, and amongst them, Islam was considered the most violent.
An in-depth understanding of this self-serving assertion was suggested in a 2019 research by the Muslim Council of Britain. The council set out to find out how mainstream media portrayed Muslims. It came as no surprise that “Most coverages of Muslims amongst British news outlets,” as in the U.S, “had a negative slant.” The negative coverage was as high as 70% with some media outlets.
With all the negativity permeating the world we live in, you would think the Christian community would attempt to be different. After all, since its beginning, the Christian church has always had evangelism at its core. Even during tumultuous times of theological schism, with each group walking away and establishing themselves as the “legitimate” Christian church, the one thing all the groups still had in common was—and still is—evangelism.
Like many other Christian movements, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is also active in proselytizing. The Three Angels Messages are foundational to our identity, thus the evangelistic drive to bring that good news to every nation, tribe, language, and people (Revelation 14:6).
While this evangelistic Christian drive appears commendable on the surface, a closer look at the philosophy behind it reveals some troubling information. Most literature and evangelistic conversations still portray Islamic people as heathens wallowing in darkness, and in desperate need of the light of Christianity. Without any historical sensitivity, we still refer to our evangelistic campaigns, even when people of Islamic background are expected in the audience, as “crusades.” And the favored format for evangelism still involves the intellectual bashing of people with religious and theological facts. This methodology comes from the belief \ that spiritual conversion is the direct result of theological factual inundation—which, I think, is far from the truth.
Unfortunately, this type of approach is as harmful as what mainstream media does. This biased approach doesn’t highlight the uniqueness of the Islamic people, society, and culture. It minimizes and subordinates their intellectual and spiritual contribution to humanity.
As a Christian, I appreciate and celebrate the commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). It’s the missiological approach that leaves much to be desired. It seems to me that Paul, the great missionary of the first century, understood that you do not win people by suggesting that they are inferior and irrelevant, but that they are essential and extremely important (Galatians 3:26-29).
The eye exam
I do not have a profound missiological philosophy to help remedy this problem. As we prayerfully work on addressing this missiological conundrum, however, there is one principle that might help us.
In Matthew 7:3-5, Jesus taught that a thorough introspection should always precede all our theological work.
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
When it comes to Christian-Islamic interactions, we ought to critically look within before speaking to Islamic people. Looking within will help give us a better understanding of our own problems, and help move us towards empathy and humility, which will prove invaluable to our mission work.
The violence and fanaticism plank
Following the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7:3-5, one example of a “plank” we have in our metaphoric eye is the issue of violence and fanaticism. Before we criticize the expression of religious convictions through violence, it might do us some good to take a long hard look at all the times we as Christians have done the same. History is brimming with examples of how Christians used violence in God’s name as a tool for advancing the Christian cause. The crusades of 1095 –1492, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1752, the colonization of Africa and the Americas in the 1500s, and the Salem witch trials of 1692-1693 are just a tip of the iceberg.
An in-depth understanding of how and why we carried out these atrocities is strangely absent in our missiological discourses. Acknowledging this plank, coupled with some honest self-criticism, will undoubtedly help insulate our Christian approach to missiology with unconditional love.
Denying this history, and categorizing it as the mistakes of others, will rob us of a much-needed educational experience that ought to inform the Christians we aspire to be today.
Owning the good and the bad
As Seventh-day Adventist Christians, we often associate our story, experiences, and the principles we live by with Christians in the past. John Wesley, William Miller, Martin Luther, the Waldenses, and the first century church are often spoken of in our discussions of ourselves.
As much as we love cherry-picking the good, I believe we ought to embrace the victories and the failures of our Christian past equally. With equal energy, we can investigate our historical failures, and allow the lessons we learn to inform our Christian experience today.
Nothing is more responsible for the good old Christian days, the days when faith was great and religious experience beautiful, than a bad memory. Our selective amnesia does us no good at all, for there is much value in experiential knowledge. It is one thing to know anything theoretically and quite another to know it experientially.
If I were to take a class on suffering, I would happily sit at the feet of one who has suffered much and carries the scars on their body and mind, rather than one who has studied much and carries academic degrees on suffering.
The historic scars we carry will inform our Christian practice and bring a layer of credibility to our message.
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, orator and author serving the Osoyoos Church in the British Columbia Conference. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have been blessed with three daughters, who are the joy of their lives and their highest calling. His website is themscproject.com.