On the wrong side of Jesus

January 21st, 2015

It was my honor to pray with Muslim students at Duke University.

God must have been smiling on that beautiful day in spring 2013. The warm sun shone and a fresh breeze swept between the Gothic stone blue and slate buildings around us. It was a gray winter, much colder than normal for the Old North State. But on this day, as we knelt on gray canvas spread over the short-cut grassy quad in front of Duke Chapel, spring was hammering the final nail in winter’s coffin. For the first time in months I didn’t need a jacket.

It was my second year in seminary at Duke Divinity School (which, ironically, sits ten paces to the right of Duke Chapel, the focus of the media hell storm of the past week), and I was enrolled in a course focusing on interreligious dialogue. Our professor was wise enough to require each student in the course to attend at least two “religious services” of a faith that was not our own, and submit a brief reflection on our experience.

Every Friday afternoon at Duke University, Muslim students gather for prayer in the basement of Duke Chapel. But on this particular day on which God had dealt death to winter, the kind folks of the Muslim Student Association chose to gather outside, in full sight of God, caffeinated sophomores, and precocious seminarians. Our professor had told us ahead of time that this opportunity was coming, so I chose to fulfill one of my course requirements outside on the quad, a twenty-something Christian praying with a bunch of Muslims who had no clue who I was.

What was the experience like? I can sum it up in one word: peaceful. About fifty of us, brown, black, and white, hijab and no-hijab, removed our shoes, walked onto the canvas laid down on the grass, and knelt down to pray. At first I felt self-conscious. ‘Can the women kneeling behind me see my underwear?’ But my ego quickly subsided when a Duke student called for prayer over a portable PA system. We stood up, and knelt again. Then we stood up, and knelt again. We listened to a brief reflection on the importance of community engagement and service in the city of Durham, NC, where Duke is located. The speaker, yet again, was a student. He spoke of peace and justice, two words I was trying to understand in my Bible classes. Then we dispersed, and that was it.

No talk of war. No bashing of Christians or Jews. No hate speech. Only peace. Of course, what more should I have expected from people whose religion values peace above all else?

Fast-forward two years, and those exact same students, future doctors, lawyers, professors, and social workers, are under attack from white Christians who don’t even live in town. It is a disgrace to my religion, this hate-speech from Christians who have not the faintest idea of what the religious climate of Duke University is like. The only place where religion is fervently debated to the point of throwing hard objects at other persons is in the Divinity School, between Christians who take ourselves too seriously and have nothing better to do. No aggression or hate, not the faintest whisper of malcontent, comes from our Muslim friends.

I am most enraged at one fellow Christian in particular. Franklin Graham, I have a bone to pick with you. You posted this on Facebook on January 14th at 1:32 pm.



We could chat about your tragic misunderstanding of pluralism or your misguided agenda of lumping about 1.5 billion people in a narrow fundamentalist stream of Islamic ideology that most of them condemn. But how about something different? How about your request that Duke donors and alumni “withhold their support” until the decision allowing public call-to-prayer at Duke is reversed?

We have a word for this kind of behavior, Mr. Graham. It’s called terrorism. You didn’t use bullets or bombs. You used Duke’s wallet.

Do you even realize what you did? You frightened people into thinking that if they give money to Duke University, Muslims on campus will do bad things. That is an underhanded act of terror, and you did it without even stepping foot on campus.

Social media and money were your weapons, hurled at Duke to frighten and subdue.

The saddest part is, you were successful. Tens of thousands of people reposted your words. Duke was barraged by phone calls. The University received threats. School officials were forced to back down because of the wrongly placed fear of Christians just like you. Largely in part of your actions, Duke students were put in danger. They had to cancel this would-be-historic event because students could have been hurt.

To summarize, the University received threats that acts of violence would be committed if a Muslim student in his twenties broadcasted the call to peaceful prayer in broad daylight, and those threats were initiated because you — yes you, Mr. Graham — scared the daylights out of Christians who listen to you for spiritual guidance.

It is now Friday, January 16th, and students from a rainbow of backgrounds have gathered outside Duke Chapel in solidarity with their Muslim friends as they listen together to the call-to-prayer, not piped through the Chapel’s audio system, but through another portable system plopped on the quad, just like two years ago. They won’t stop praying, Mr. Graham. They won’t stop praying for peace. They won’t stop praying for you. In the end, will find yourself on the wrong side of Jesus, who once taught his friends to love their enemies and turn the other cheek? Who will listen to Jesus with more attention this week: you, or Muslim students at Duke University?

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